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This has been a bit of a roller coaster but I’m finally putting some pieces together. All the specs on my tank are in my bio but I’ll repeat some of them here that I think might have to do with my issue.

1. I converted to a biological filter about 6 months ago and didn’t think much about the switch. In my near decade of keeping 10-25gl aquariums I have always used carbon, hang-on-the-back filters because that’s all that was available at my local store.
2. I don’t have a quarantine tank, never have had one, so I haven’t quarantined new fish In the past (emphasis on in the past. I’ve been doing fine for 10 years without one but I’m starting to learn my lesson. I’m working on setting up a cycling a 10gl x,D)
3. I live on a well. Years and years ago I would treat the all water I put into the tank until I realized my water didn’t contain chlorine or any other harmful chemicals and the fish seemed happier without my weekly meddling in the chem levels so it’s been ages since I was concerned with it.
4. The water has an odd mildew smell. I’ve been concerned about the smell for months, thought is was my live plants and removed them for a few weeks. That didn’t do anything so I turned my heater down a little and that also didn’t change anything. I still don’t know what the smell is. But the plants went back in and I set my heater back up to 76f.

Now for the issue: About a month or two ago I got two molly’s and a platy and added them to my tank. At the time it only had three 4yro skirt tetras, a 2yro danio, five or so guppies that had been donated to the pet store that I had nursed to health, and my magical 5 year old dwarf pleco (who is somehow living through all of this😂)

One of the molly’s died within the first week. No problem, I thought. He hadn’t been looking too great from the start despite my careful drip acclimating them so I blamed it on my fish store (their fish are not always the best but it’s the only store I have for miles around). About a month later the platy started sitting on the bottom of the tank, lethargic and gasping. It slowly died over a surprisingly long period. Shortly after that the other molly started gasping and slowly died too. I was frustrated, I’ve never seen fish die like this before. But, again, I thought it had to be the fish store since all my old fish were fine. Speak of the devil. They started showing the symptoms a week later and I rushed to the pet store, explained what was happening, gave them water to test (even though they use the same test strips I was using) and was told it was “probably“ a bacterial infection. No ammonia was showing up on their test strips or mine. I was sold an expensive bacterial infection treatment and I treated my tank for a week. The skirt tetras and a few of my guppies died. A pretty hard blow since the tetras had been with me for almost as long as the tank had been set up and I had put a lot of effort into nursing the guppies. But then everything seemed to calm down. The fish were doing well and two weeks later I figured the nightmare was over.

My pet store had gotten more donated guppies (in perfect health this time) and dwarf gourami for the first time ever (finally✨). I also noticed a poor little pictus catfish all on his lonesome in tank full of nibbling goldfish with no logs or plants or decorations of any kind for him to hide in. I had no clue if he would get along with my grumpy pleco and was worried he might be a little aggressive if I only got one. But he was the only one and I had seen him there two weeks before when I had come in for the water test so I hated the thought of leaving him. And before I get slashed in the comments, I did do research on him before bringing him home and he’s been a peach who absolutely loves his giant tree log home and his tank mates so I don’t want to hear it🤣

I came home with the catfish, the two gourami and the donated guppies, drip acclimated all of them and watched carefully for the next few days since I had never had gourami or a catfish before and was a little concerned they could air on the aggressive side. That worry was eased pretty quickly. They all got along so well and were very happy. But then the symptoms started again. One of the gourami’s started gasping on the bottom of the tank. And that’s when I noticed for the first time everyone’s gills seemed to be a little red. I took a water sample to the pet store again and brought the gourami with me. I asked the worker a little desperately if he wanted to observe my fish for a few hours. He declined and was not very helpful. But this time when he tested my water again he noticed “a little bit“ of ammonia was showing up. Not enough to harm the fish, he said, but any ammonia level isn’t good so best to treat it as soon as possible (duh). He sent me home with SeaChem AmGuard.

So I treated my tank for ammonia. No changes. The one gourami died, so did quite a few guppies. Not interested in getting sold another expensive, useless chemical I bought the APi Freshwater Master Test Kit to put the guessing to rest. Sure enough. .25ppm Ammonia level. That’s all I felt I needed to know. I did a nearly 50% water change last night, vacuumed the gravel till my face was blue and treated the water a little more heavily with the AmGuard. During the water change I noticed just how much the water smelled. I thought the smell could be something around the tank, but I could smell it heavily in the water a room away. I still don’t know what the smell is or if it could have something to do with my issue.

This morning the fish look quite happy and healthy and the water is crystal clear. But I’m not stupid so I checked the levels anyway, this time for all of them. And I started to piece some things together. The PH is a little high, 7.6 but not too bad. The ammonia had risen to about .50ppm which I half expected since I had vacuumed less than 12 hours before. But the Nitrites and Nitrates are what light-bulbed me. Both at 0. Like an unestablished, unicycled tank...so I thought about the filter. It’s 6 months old, should be established, but not from the looks of the levels. It was a pretty inexpensive filter off of Amazon. About $15, came with bio media and I just switched over to it from a carbon filter without a second thought. Even though I did do research when deciding to switch to a bio filter I probably didn’t do enough. I don’t know if the filter is the culprit but I’ve never had ammonia in the tank before. Maybe the media is cheap and I should replace it with more expensive media? Or maybe I should put my carbon filter back in to try to combat the issue since I’ve never had a problem with carbon.

I‘m at a loss at this point. And worried, I’ll admit. Any advice that’s not “here’s a bottle, give it a try and stop bothering me” would be helpful😂
I‘m sorry for the quite lengthy question and I appreciate the help in advance!
 

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When ammonium is present and nitrite and nitrate are absent, the bacteria that break down nitrogen are missing. Make a fishless nitrogen cycle with a fresh aquarium. Or you can inoculate a fresh aquarium with some water, gravel, or filter material from a good aquarium. Then the beneficial bacteria species have the majority again. If there is something wrong with the majority, they cannot change anything by changing the water. That's why it smells.
 
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