Understanding my ammonia spike - The Planted Tank Forum
 
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post #1 of 12 (permalink) Old 07-01-2015, 05:46 PM Thread Starter
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Understanding my ammonia spike

I moved three tanks to my new office this past weekend (with help) and felt like everything was fine when I got to putting plants back into place. Wrong.

The second day after the move I come in to find fish gasping at the surface and numerous corpses, including 3 of my 9 altums. Ammonia spike. In hindsight, completely avoidable, so I feel sick about this, but I did not understand then what I think I understand now.

The fish spent two days in large containers with filtration and when set up, the tank had maybe 50% new water and 50% old. The substrate was kept damp and the canister filters had water in them all the time. I thought that this would keep enough bacteria alive to basically pick up right where I had left off two days earlier. I think this is really what happens:

Whatever bacteria population exists before a move is just the right amount to process the waste of the existing fish population. Let's call this amount "X". Scrubbing glass and some rocks and driftwood and maybe rearranging the substrate leaves me with something less than X in the new setup. 20% less? 50%? Who knows. Enough less that ammonia becomes more than zero and sensitive fish suffer. Aggressive water changes and/or Ammo Lock or Amquel can easily buy time for the bacteria to catch up.

Does this make sense to you? Why did I not anticipate this?! Please learn from my mistake.

One interesting fact: One suffering fish was lying on the bottom as I hurriedly changed water. As soon as fresh aged water was pumping in I aimed it right at him and within 30 seconds he was upright. Amazing.

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post #2 of 12 (permalink) Old 07-01-2015, 06:06 PM
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Were canister filters turned on during these two days or not?

If not then probably all useful bacteria simply suffocated inside the filter without flow of water (that brings oxygen) and filters accumulated products of anaerobic decomposition of dead bacteria. So, once you turned them back on, filters not only provided zero biological filtration, they polluted water.
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post #3 of 12 (permalink) Old 07-01-2015, 07:30 PM Thread Starter
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The filters were not on for ~48 hours.

My tank mover helper and professional aquarium maintenance guy seemed to think they would be fine. Do you know, really truly know, that he is wrong about this? Or are you speculating?

Bacteria are pretty resilient fellows, so my speculation is that there are plenty of survivors in the filter media. But if anyone really truly knows how long they can survive in ~5 gallons (these are Eheim Pro 3s) of water, let's hear.

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post #4 of 12 (permalink) Old 07-01-2015, 07:58 PM
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There are sooooo many variables here; but I tend to agree with what Oso Polar has to say about the bacteria likely suffering. The beneficial bacteria we need in an aquarium does need to stay wet to stay alive; however oxygen is a huge component also. So keeping a canister filter off will keep it wet but barely any new oxygen is introduced which can surely cause a drop in the bacteria levels.

On that same note, you are not "killing" off any bacteria when you are "Scrubbing glass and some rocks and driftwood and maybe rearranging the substrate" as you noted above.

Rearranging the substrate can however be a potential problem. Certain substrates moreso than others. What substrate are you using?

There is also the possibility that you had pockets of waste/crap/food/etc in the substrate and agitating those can also be a potential problem.

How about your source water? Did you test the water in your new office before filling the tanks? Is it much different than your old water? Any idea as to chlorine or chloramine levels? What kind of conditioner are you using?

Did you test the water once you saw the affected fish and actually confirm an ammonia spike?

Is this issue apparently in only 1 of the 3 tanks?

Are there any other variables and/or anything else new in any of these tanks? (substrate, plants, driftwood, decor, livestock etc?) What about anything that was the tank that perhaps is no longer in there now?

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post #5 of 12 (permalink) Old 07-01-2015, 08:49 PM Thread Starter
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I am using Flourite and I think scooping it all up and laying it out again mixes the aerobic and anaerobic into less than ideal locations. That is, I buried many aerobic bacteria in the new setup. This is a part of my current theory.

I moved 1/2 mile and the water source is the same. I use Prime to treat water.

The 75g tank went through the same steps but the endlers in there seem less sensitive. I think the bioload there is less too. The 6g tank was not completely emptied and has only one betta, so let's exclude it.

When I scrub rocks and driftwood under untreated tap water, don't I lose whatever bacteria were residing there? At least some? The whole point is my ammonia processing capacity went down. If it went down more than 50% then perhaps there is another spike coming, but behavior so far seems to say no.

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post #6 of 12 (permalink) Old 07-01-2015, 09:02 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by tomfromstlouis View Post
When I scrub rocks and driftwood under untreated tap water, don't I lose whatever bacteria were residing there? At least some?
Ah, yes. I imagined just dry scrubbing and not under tap water. So you will loose some from those surfaces if you run under tap water. In normal circumstances that is no big deal as the majority of your beneficial bacteria is within the filter. But assuming that the bacteria in the filter was at risk then this could be an issue.

Ted Judy swears by cleaning his sponge filters in straight tapwater and claims there is enough bacterial growth on there that while he surely loses some it does not cause a tank crash. I believe that is in bare bottom tanks with no other filters. So clearly bacteria is quite resilient!

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post #7 of 12 (permalink) Old 07-01-2015, 09:07 PM Thread Starter
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When I get around to cleaning filters, I too use tap water, but on the sponge material only. I rarely rinse the biofilter material. And I only do one filter at a time and the tank has two.

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post #8 of 12 (permalink) Old 07-01-2015, 11:49 PM
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In an average set up the bacterial live on all the surfaces.
ROUGHLY:
50% in the filter media. Without water circulation (bringing them oxygen) they can die. In warmer temperatures, they will die pretty fast. In cooler temperatures they will live a bit longer.
25% on the pieces of substrate that are exposed to good water flow for oxygen and ammonia, but not directly in the light. So... on the under side of the top few pieces of substrate. Mixing the substrate will bury these. Aquatic plants can pump oxygen down through their roots and out into the substrate. But freshly transplanted, I would think they are not quite up to doing a really good job at this.
25% on all other surfaces- driftwood, rocks, equipment, plant leaves and stems... as long as it is out of the direct light. Wiping off the glass is not a problem at all. Wiping off rocks is not a problem. The surface area on a smooth rock is so low that there is only a small amount of bacteria growing on it.

The bacteria do not need to be under water, but in a humid location is good.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------

How to move a tank:
Clean the substrate and filter a week or so ahead of time. This gives the bacteria a chance to recover if needed.

Prepare enough new water for 100%+ water change.

Unplug, turn off all equipment. Filter: Empty the media into a bucket and add a small pump or bubbler. Something that will keep the water oxygenated.

Drain the best water into buckets for the fish. A little stress coat, or ammonia locking product may help. Put lid on the buckets, and keep them in a temperature stable location.

Gently remove plants, decor. Plants can go into buckets, a day or two without light is not a problem. Not the fish buckets, though.

Skim the top layer of substrate, about 5 grains deep. Keep this in a separate bucket with oxygenation (water circulation, or just damp, and keep the lid off)

The rest of the substrate can be cleaned as you lift it through the remaining water, or rinsed after it is out of the tank.

OK to use this opportunity to clean the glass, lid, etc.

When you put things back together do not use the water in the fish buckets. Fish under stress produce excess ammonia and stress hormones.

The bacteria-rich substrate can be placed as the top layer, or (if you are changing the look, and do not want this in the tank) placed in 3+ mesh bags (nylon stocking, other), hung on the tank sides where there is good water movement, and removed from the system over perhaps a month.

When in doubt, get some Nitrospira species of bacteria and add it to the system. Read the label. Do not waste money on anything else.

After: Skip feeding for a day. Test often, and be ready to do water changes.
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post #9 of 12 (permalink) Old 07-02-2015, 05:29 AM
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As Diana points out, the bacteria must remain in a humid location and the filter media must be in OXYGENATED water to be able to survive a tank move. That means like an open topped bucket that can be allow the water to be agitated easily if you dont have a smaller filter or air pump available.

I might consider talking to your "professional" aquarium guy, as he/she should have known better than to advise you to leave standing water in your expensive canister filters like that. The filters should have been emptied, cleaned, and refilled with fresh dechlor water at their new location.
post #10 of 12 (permalink) Old 07-02-2015, 06:21 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by tomfromstlouis View Post
The filters were not on for ~48 hours.

My tank mover helper and professional aquarium maintenance guy seemed to think they would be fine. Do you know, really truly know, that he is wrong about this?
Not from my personal experience but it is really a common knowledge, basics of handling canister filter - you can't turn off canister filter for long periods of time. Bacterias need to eat and they need to breath. They are really tightly packed inside the canister, circulating water brings food and oxygen. Without water flow they'll not get new food and, what's more important, they'll not get oxygen. That's why in such situations you either take all substrate out and put in some bucket with air pump (it'll aerate water and create some movement) OR simply put filter intake and output both in the bucket and turn the filter on - this way water will still flow through the filter and everything will be fine (no difference at all from the point of view of the filter). Bucket should be filled with aquarium water.
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post #11 of 12 (permalink) Old 07-07-2015, 06:07 PM Thread Starter
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I asked my move helper to respond. Here is his response to the thread:

Tom,

Interesting reading. I love the opportunity to listen and learn from other experienced hobbyists.

I agree with the common idea that the bacteria bed was damaged (an obvious conclusion since ammonia spiked). From that point it is all conjecture: for me a well.

We know the temporary filters had enough bacteria to prevent any elevations and the filter media in them came from the two eheim filters (same bacteria bed as tank). With the gravel bed being stirred and ringed in the old aquarium water and the filters being off for two days (not a common occurrence with normal moves) s fair amount of bacteria were expected to die off. However, with the small bio load: 9 altums, 3 gourami, a few tetras, and significantly less detritus; a reduction in bacteria should not have made a difference. In hind sight an air stone in the filters might have helped a little.

My guess the largest bacteria "hit" came from one of the filters not starting properly for an additional day (or two?). This if using some of the arbitrary numbers (nothing wrong with that but there is just no way of knowing) to bacteria loss: if both filters were running at 50% loss then during the spike -and one filter running - the aquarium was only at 25% bacteria capacity.

Scott Kohler

Aquatic Creations

PS, feel free to post this, there is a lot of art in aquarium keeping and I always value other opinions and a chance to learn!


Tom here again. Not sure what he means about a filter not starting, but my primary regret is not how we treated the filter media for 48 hours, which I suppose we could have improved, but rather not simply assuming there would be a spike and aggressively changing water and/or treating with Ammo-Lock or similar. With sensitive fish ANY spike is dangerous and I simply should have presumed there would be a temporary shortage of bacteria. Even with Diana's herculean regime I would make this assumption if I did this again.

I thank all for this discussion. I know more than before. I am still sick about the deaths, but the nightmares have stopped. Life goes on.

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post #12 of 12 (permalink) Old 07-07-2015, 10:29 PM
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Originally Posted by tomfromstlouis View Post
Life goes on.

Thats all that really matters in the end! Glad to see you at least got a response from the helper.

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