My take on substrates and methodology - The Planted Tank Forum
 
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post #1 of 11 (permalink) Old 02-21-2009, 11:04 PM Thread Starter
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My take on substrates and methodology

I recently made a comment about planted tanks relating to substrates, "What disturbs me the most about the whole planted tank education process is that people rely upon products rather than methodology. Learn the methodology, then use the products as tools to serve the purpose at hand." I was asked to explain the methodology part, and I would like to discuss it.

First of all, understand that I can't possibly provide a best solution for each person, at least not without sitting down with them one on one--there are simply far too many variables and personal choices involved. But what I can do is give a few tips about substrates that could allow a person to make the best choice for their situation.

The hobby is becoming more commercialized which means more choices for you and I to choose from. Some expensive and some that are cheap, usually those stemming from DIY type creations. What I love about this hobby is that expensive doesn't mean better. In many cases, it's a waste of money. With substrates in particular, there's really not a whole lot of difference between the various plant-specific substrates. Gravel is gravel and dirt is dirt no matter how fancy the bag is and how expensive it may be. Some substrates have nuances that one person may like while another could do without. I've spent a small fortune in the early years of plant growing trying the latest and greatest, only to go back to the plain cheap stuff. At this stage in my hobby, all the fancy names don't mean squat. I look behind the wrapper at what I'm really getting before I make a purchase, which is what I encourage everyone to do.

"There is no magic substrate, only convenient ones."

Let's start with gravel substrates, i.e. Flourite, Eco-complete, and any other gravel based substrate. This is what I call glorified gravel. It claims to have nutrients, but that doesn't mean it's going to make your tank grow plants better than anything else. The nutrients aren't readily available and by the time they are (biologically), the bacteria's doing all the work in the substrate, not the substrate itself. On top of that, dosing the water column is doing what's left of the work. What exactly did you pay for, and was it worth it? Plain gravel will work just as well. Hell, even styrofoam beads could do the job too if they had decent mass and wouldn't fly all over the place. I've tried just about all of them and I'm not impressed. Case in point: everyone seems to like this 3M Colorquartz stuff--because it's black and looks good. Many others use plain sand. Why? Color and price. Sounds like convenience to me.

Moving on to ADA Aquasoil. This substrate gets a bad wrap for a couple of reasons. The ammonia spike, stained water, some will turn to mud (bad batch?), and price. Except for the mud part, IMO, this substrate is the perfect combination of convenience vs. performance. It's certainly not magical, but unlike passive substrates (gravel), I would consider this an active one. It does contain nitrogen. Good for plants, bad for fish. It does contain peat. Good for water conditions, bad for aesthetics (stained water) and possibly harmful to fish. It has a good size/shape and is soil based. Plants can grow more easily in soil than in gravel due to better root systems. Plus it won't scratch the glass or poke your feet if you step on it. Now the real kicker is this: how to use it. Aquasoil's primary benefits are in the early stages of a new planted tank: the extra nitrogen is for the plants so you don't have to dose the water column because most foliage isn't sufficient to amply supply the entire plants needs, not to kill your fish. Tank after tank, my observations conclude that this substrate will result in more and faster plant growth than any other substrate. After a while, this benefit will wear off, but by them, dosing the water column will remedy this. Is all this necessary? No. Again, it's only a convenience factor.

How about mineralized soil? It's dirt. Dirt is always a solid choice for a plant medium. It contains some organic material that helps promote biological systems for good plant growth. It's definitely cheap. What about the additives? IMO, they are totally unnecessary and stem from horticulture, not aquaculture. Dolomite? KCL? Clay? What for? All of this can be dosed by a simple comprehensive trace fert (additionally K2SO4 for KCL) which will provide better results anyway. You don't even need dolomite if your tap water has any GH at all, not that it's that important. Even in low tech tanks I would still dose a trace fert. All questions aside, soil is a great choice. Funny how it took this long for it to become popular when it's been used by the DIY crowd for decades. Ironically, the people who complain about their Aquasoil turning to mud often go with mineralized soil. Soil + water = mud. Hmmm.

To complete the circle and get back to the initial statement at hand, regardless of what you use, it all comes down to methodology: knowing what your plants need and giving it to them. N, P, K, trace nutrients, light, CO2, a good rooting medium, water quality, and good pruning techniques. Methodology is all of these things in their varying degrees. That's the hard part. If you can discover how to optimize the combinations, only then can you use a particular product for a purpose and achieve a greater result, or achieve your results with less effort. Until that time, that shiny new product is only a crutch or you're buying yourself time until one combination that's off finally fails. It's you, not the product. But if it makes you sleep better at night, by all means...

When it comes down to it, if you can't explain exactly why you're using what your using and how every part works in combination, then something's amiss. The answers "because it's good" or "I heard..." isn't sufficient.
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post #2 of 11 (permalink) Old 02-22-2009, 02:02 AM
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Wow great article on substrate! Must of took you a while to write like how it took a while to read

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post #3 of 11 (permalink) Old 02-22-2009, 02:56 AM
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Very informative article! Thank you for taking the time to write it!

Tim
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post #4 of 11 (permalink) Old 02-22-2009, 12:07 PM
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Thanks for the info
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post #5 of 11 (permalink) Old 02-22-2009, 01:58 PM
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Although I agree wholeheartedly with your general theme, ie good technique/method trumps good looking gadgets, I might dispute some of the minutiae, but I'll save that for someone else. I will say this, however. Some products (equipment, etc.) do mitigate disaster, prevent failure, and greatly increase chances for success. The old adage "use the right tool for the right job" is still common for a reason. The key is, as you correctly point out, knowing when and how to engage a particular resource (tool).
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post #6 of 11 (permalink) Old 02-22-2009, 03:06 PM
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the only problem with this writeup is your take on mineralized soil. It is a soil BASED substrate, but it certainly isn't "just dirt." The point of the mineralization process is to take OUT the organics you mentioned. You can't expect mineralized soil and a bag of the "dirt" it started out as to perform the same. The point to this substrate is that people don't have to dose anything for a long time, and even then, just small amounts of K.

To go back to your original point, you're right. People should know what their goals are and how these things work going with one decision or another, but in that case, we're not talking about beginners since they don't have a way of knowing how "everything" works. This is one hobby that must be tried to be realised. Reading is good. Trying is better. Hence, they'll have to make SOME decision for their first tank, and they can only go off of what other people say.


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post #7 of 11 (permalink) Old 02-22-2009, 04:12 PM
 
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Methodology is important, no doubt. Good writeup overall.

(1) Know your goals. Low tech or High Tech/Types of Plants you plan to grow or want to grow and what their requirments are. Reasons for setup (Amano beauty/practical to enhance fish health, or both, how much time, money, and effort you are prepared to invest in your setup).

(2)Reaseach and investigate. Look at what others have done to be successful, how they have successfully dealt with algae issues should the time come that you need to battle algae, etc., PM them and harass them if you have to. Most people are generally pretty helpful.

(3)Most important, try for yourself and see what happens. You may be successful or you may fail despite doing things by the book. If you fail, take a deep breath, reassess and trouble shoot to see what may have gone wrong, post for help on the forum. Failures can be opportunities to learn. Surprisingly things don't always go as planned and sometimes defy logic and Science. You can have excellent plant growth, optimal c02, and all water parameters may test within levels considered ideal for plant growth, yet algae may rear its ugly head. Many experienced folks and newbies have documented/journaled such occurences on this and other fourms. You may have two people with all things being equal right down to the fish stocking levels, lighting, etc,, where one person may end up with no issues and another may end up with unexplained algae or shrimp deaths. Such is the nature of the hobby. You have to find on your own what works best for you and what does not and when things go wrong try and determine what went wrong and why and test solutions to fix the problem, or you could pack it in and conclude that is too much trouble, which most who get out off the hobby right away end up doing.
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post #8 of 11 (permalink) Old 02-22-2009, 04:38 PM
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I second what ColeMan and jargonchipmunk said. About what jargonchipmunk said, a beginner has a fighting chance if they use something for a substrate that is sold for that purpose, even if it does cost a bit more. Beginners tend to start with smaller tanks, so the high cost of proprietary substrates isn't that significant.

The "beginner" will probably progress to a bigger tank later, and will know a lot more by then, so that is the time to apply their knowledge, consider advice by others, evaluate that advice, and go with something more adventurous, like mineralized topsoil, worm castings, even ADA Aquasoil, etc.

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post #9 of 11 (permalink) Old 02-22-2009, 04:52 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Hoppy View Post
I second what ColeMan and jargonchipmunk said. About what jargonchipmunk said, a beginner has a fighting chance if they use something for a substrate that is sold for that purpose, even if it does cost a bit more. Beginners tend to start with smaller tanks, so the high cost of proprietary substrates isn't that significant.

The "beginner" will probably progress to a bigger tank later, and will know a lot more by then, so that is the time to apply their knowledge, consider advice by others, evaluate that advice, and go with something more adventurous, like mineralized topsoil, worm castings, even ADA Aquasoil, etc.
Well said, when I was a bigginner and didn't know any better, someone recommended Eco-complete. Although it was expensive, I'm glad i went that route. Why, because for a bigginner it is EASY. It does not cloud water, does not release ammonium, does not contaminate the water column like mineralized soil can, and all (depending on your needs) the properties you would want in a substrate. With that said, I set up a low light/low tech tank for a friend with a $2.00 bag of top soil and leftover aquarium gravel on top. His tank looks great. When I decide to set-up another tank and need a new substrate I will be more wise and I am much more educated now to try different (cheaper) alternatives.

Nice write up!
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post #10 of 11 (permalink) Old 02-22-2009, 05:48 PM
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I think SCMurphy's take is similar to my own on this.

Both he and I, as well as many many others long before us, used all sorts of DIY versions. I cannot even count the number of sediment versions I've done.
30?

I think if you include variation with DIY methods, trying to find a standard method so that folks have a higher level % etc of success and streamline advice etc, the trade offs of inert vs N/P enriched sediment types, ADA comes out ahead.

Many balk at spending $$$ for ADA AS. Fine. If you live near a good source of wetland sediment, you can go collect it and wash it, screen it and let it soak for a few weeks, or DIY any number of combos, but these all take a lot more labor a work. A lot more.

So you can DIY the work yourself if you chose, or just pay for4 it and have the ADA As look nice also.

Sort of like buying a glass tank vs DIY a glass tank.
Why not make those since it is much cheaper to DIY a glass tank?

Same argument.

Nutrient rich sediments do offer some good trade off benefits, but inert sand works fine as well and you can add a few things to that to help, eg osmocoat etc, peat, some mulm. All things I've used going pretty far back.

You can also add less soil, not as much as suggested in many cases.

I think what happens many times is that some think they can add everything they need into the sediment to avoid dosing the water column. While this is true, we can see it's limitation. We still are going to need to CO2, K+, traces etc. So it does not save you from labor or help the plants any better.
The water column dosing is also an issue if you forget or do not add enough.

So bring both sources of nutrients into the plan, you have a win -win situation, rather than this "either or" business. I have no idea why anyone likes to play those type of black and white games when common sense will quickly tell you if the water column is also fertilized, you have a much greater extended sediment nutrient source lifetime. And by adding sediment nutrients, you have less error with forgetful water column dosing.

Add less light, now you have less draw on CO2, and also less draw on sediment/water column nutrients. Now you are getting somewhere and this can apply to any method. Now you can get more out of the sediment with fewer failures.

I think many are still stuck in the past about nutrients in the water column somehow being "bad" and "causing algae", both of which have been patently and methodically shown to be false. If that is accepted as a cause, then if everything is truly independent, and NO3/PO4 cause algae, I should have algae and should have had it for decades. When folks claim otherwise, it quickly tells us that their tanks are not independent. That have some other variable that is causing the results for them to come out different and get an algae bloom. Some they try many things and keep claiming that NO3/PO4 causes algae.

Using lower water column nutrients is one such method.
But they have as much algae as anyone with high nutrients like myself if not more.

ADA AS has some trade offs, cost is the big one, lots of water changes(EI does the same thing here, so these match well together- see less draw from the sediment-extended life), but it's also much easier to tell new folks how to use it.

Many folks have different goals, so no one sediment will meet those goals, nor any one method, heck, I do not use one method myself.

What is key is a good understanding of each sediment, it's trade offs, benefits and what the user/newbie is looking for it their grand scheme end result.

Most want nice plants, most what some type of growth "rate"(slow, medium, high), no algae etc. So focusing on light and plant health achieves that, what changes really is the rate of growth they want and how much effort labor they want to put it for it to be a long term system that's stable and resilient.

I think nutrient rich (not Eco complete etc) sediments with some N and P do a good job there. Good texture like clays are also good(Kitty litter to ADA AS).

With DIY sediment methods, I think many need to do more water changes in the start, more focus on CO2, add some carbon etc, plant more heavily etc.

The same is true with ADA.

The chronic plant mover needs a more inert sediment, flourite/EC, sand etc.

If all you want is some N and P long term, add osmocoat. Cheap, last as long if not longer than ADA PS, less messy and tacky looking.

If you really wanna learn more about aquatic wetland sediments, buy or check out Reddy and DeLaune's Biogeochemistry of Wetlands, 2008.
One of the best all around text on aquatic sediments there is by one of the most active researchers in the field of sub and tropical aquatic plant sediments.
http://www.amazon.com/Biogeochemistr...328495&sr=11-1

Regards,
Tom Barr




Regards,
Tom Barr
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post #11 of 11 (permalink) Old 04-14-2009, 04:00 PM
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With the problems I have had and from what I have observed, It seems the substrate can help plants adapt to low light an poor water quality. Some manage with simple substrate, low light and root tabs in the substrate.

At present doing an experiment using natural lump charcoal to prove this. I am lowering my lights to half because my electric bill is way above the calculated budget plan I am on.
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