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I am thinking about using soil substrate with a small gravel on top (or crushed coral on top). I am used to sifting my substrates quite heavily. Obviously when one is layering their substrate they can not sift the substrate or it will mix all up. And also, with some sort of carpet plant that would make it hard too. My question is, without sifting (cleaning) the substrate, isn't there a big risk of ammonia build up from uneaten food and waste?
 

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Disturb top layer little bit and vacuum out. Push Siphon gently on carpets. It will automatically vacuum up lighter gunks.

Unless you have heavily stocked tank or overfeed your fish, ammonia spike will not be that much of a problem as long as basics running OK.
By basics I mean filters, WC, flow and vacuuming.

For first few weeks AS will give much more ammonia spike compared to NH4 from waste.
I never tried capping, but I think it will still leech out eventually. Just more slowly.




If I was to set up a tank then I would just go for AS only.
Do some heavy WCs for a month then you have NH4 under control.
Then you get better contact to water column, which means better CEC.
Also its easier to clean and vacuum.
 

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In my experience - Its most important not to cheap out on your soil. I use ADA aqua soil or fluval stratum and avoid a number of issues ive had with almost every other substrate that breaks down and causes issues whether this be to lack of water flow from compaction of its own weight and vibration, cheap material breaking down etc. For whatever reason I really dont have any issues ever with these 2 brands however with other off brand soils, I have absolutely had issues that seemed to come around the 1 year mark. Once your tank is fully planted - how are you supposed to vacuum all substrate to stop this from happening? If you dont want to avoid these midrange & low end brand soils, I highly recommend vacuuming deep into them consistently since they are heavier - more easily become packed down & unable to breathe & allow roots to spread becoming useless as a plant substrate and eventually even toxic - especially during big water changes. I do not recommend crushed coral for at least the plants Ive used, and in my experience, plants love some acidic water at least every once in a while ( rain ).

40% water changed weekly. 35 planted aquariums. Remineralized RO water.
 
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I'm going a bit controversial here but if the tank is balanced (ie good growth, algae under control) then cleaning a substrate is bad because it removes a lot of organics but also bacteria which are the main contributors to balancing a tank. Because a balanced tank is one that has a high ability to mineralize organics.
 

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I'm going a bit controversial here but if the tank is balanced (ie good growth, algae under control) then cleaning a substrate is bad because it removes a lot of organics but also bacteria which are the main contributors to balancing a tank. Because a balanced tank is one that has a high ability to mineralize organics.
This is not a controversial take. It's the right take and the one that most longtime hobbyists hold. Just search this forum and you'll see what I mean.

There's almost never a need to vacuum or do more than light cleaning around substrate in a planted tank. I've been at this since the 90s and have never had to disturb substrate in a tank other than to replant something. It's just not necessary if you put in the effort to properly maintain a tank. A quick, light suction with a piece of airline tubing here or there is all it takes. Could also use a turkey baster or large irrigation syringe.

Further - crushed coral, @marshmallow? Why? That's begging for parameter problems. Don't use it unless you know it's necessary.
 

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A quick, light suction with a piece of airline tubing here or there is all it takes. Could also use a turkey baster or large irrigation syringe.
I guess my point is one shouldn't even do that. It's actually not an easy thing to do because for those who are used to pristine conditions, the temptation to blast that little spot of mulm with a turkey baster and suck it up during a water change is almost irresistible especially if there's a little bit of algae on the glass or something. Of course doing some is inevitable especially if we're feeding heavy and there's an outbreak but the less we do it the more the tank balances.


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