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Choosing the Right Substrate for Your Aquarium

OnyxThere are hundreds of ways that you can make your aquarium “your own”, from the decor or theme you choose to the plants and fish you keep, and even how you choose to accent your habitat with lighting. You may spend a lot of time anguishing on these aspects, hoping to match the vision you build in your head. One aspect that you may not guve the consideration it deserves is the substrate you choose, but the right gravel can make or break the look of your aquarium. This stuff is more than just rocks and sand, it may be the one thing that completes your perfect aesthetic. Let’s look at some of the popular substrate options on the market and explore why one may suit your aquarium better than others.

Freshwater Substrates

If you have a freshwater aquarium, you have a huge selection of substrate colors and types to choose from. First you have to decide if you’re going for a natural look or for something more thematic or colorful. You can purchase colored pebbles or glass accent stones in every color of the rainbow, but some colors are so vibrant they can take the attention away from the stars of the display, your fish.  Colored stones have their place, and can make for a realy fun set-up, but be sure you know what you’re getting into before you purchase a bulk of neon pink or blue substrate. Often these substrates are best as accent colors mixed with natural selections, or for use in smaller tanks.

The natural look tends to be more desirable amongst most hobbyists, shades of grey, tan and brown. These pebbles mimic the textures of creak beds, river shallows, and other natural habitats where these fish come from, making them feel like their back at home. While not all that eye-catching in a bag, these substrates complement the natural colors of live fish and plants, really allowing them to shine. These selections aren’t monotonous either. There are lots to choose from, different sizes, multi-tone, tumbled or rough, that can be mixed or matched to create a custom blend for your tank.  Keep in mind that the size of the gravel you choose may have some impact on fish and plants. Bottom dwelling or bottom feeding fish, and those who breed and nest in the substrate will generally prefer sand or very small pebbles that are easier to move and shuffle, and softer on fins, skin and scales. Likewise, plants may not root well in pebbles that are too large or rough. You may choose to create varying areas in the tank between larger pebbles and finer substrate like inert sand to accommodate several types of fish and plants.  Inert types of freshwater sands are available, but be sure to choose the right kind, otherwise your water chemistry could be effected.

Specialty Substrates

OnyxThere are also special substrates you can use in your freshwater tanks that not only look natural but also provide benefits to your livestock. These include packaged live sand, flourite/laterite plant substrates, soils and cichlid substrates. Live sand is harvested from a natural wet environment and is packaged with live bacteria intact. These bacteria jump start the cycling process and help to establish marine tanks fast. Plant substrates are naturally colored and sized just right for root establishment. These materials also contribute nutrients to enhance plant growth and vigor. Several substrates on the market are designed to cater specifically to the chemistry and habitat need of Rift Lake Cichlids. These help to maintain pH and hardness, and mimic the rocky appearance of their natural habitats. Some hobbyists also go to the next level for Asian and Amazonian species by creating a soft soil/sand bed using peat, laterite or coco fiber. The natural feel and tannin production helps to make these light-shy fish more comfortable and can make their colors super vibrant.

Marine Substrates

Marine substrates include shell, crushed coral, aragonite sand and similar materials principally composed of calcium carbonate. These substrates will help to increase and maintain pH and hardness. These materials are suitable for all marine set-ups and for Rift Lake cichlids that enjoy similar water chemistry minus the salt. These substrates present little variation from afar, with mostly cream or white coloration with flecks of pink, orange and other naturally occurring shell coloration. There are a few selections that occur naturally in gold or black hues which may be mixed with lighter varieties or used as primary substrate. Incorporating these darker colors may help to keep the colors of your fish more vibrant, as the bright bottom may cause the colors of the fish to appear washed out.

Going Without

Australian GoldIn some instances you may even choose to go bare in the aquarium. Bare bottom is usually reserved for med tanks or quarantine systems, but many aquarists opt for no gravel to make maintenance and feeding easier. While this type of set-up has advantages, there are several things to consider before going bare. Some fish may stress easily or not be able to behave naturally if there is no substrate to cover the bottom glass. This method is obviously not a good choice if you want to house gobies or other bottom dwelling or burrowing species. Rooted live plants will not have a place to anchor without a deep gravel bed, so you’ll also be limited to either artificial plants that suck to the bottom or bunch plants that do not need to be anchored in gravel. Substrate also provides a large bed for nitrifying bacteria…be sure to have ample biological filtration, porous rock, or other media to offer the bacteria a place to thrive.

What it all boils down to is taste. The gravel you choose will complete your aquarium’s look and can play a big role in how your fish behave in the tank. Consider the needs of your fish before you make the final decision on how to “carpet” your tank.

Aquarium Fishes and Hurricanes – Dealing with Bacterial Blooms, Disease and Lack of Oxygen

Discus AquariumHello, Frank Indiviglio here.  October, 2012’s Hurricane Sandy wrecked havoc on fish keepers and public aquariums in the Northeastern USA.  My own collection, which houses several 20-30 year-old catfishes, loaches and aquatic amphibians, suffered only a single loss.  I owe a debt of gratitude to the dedicated folks at That Fish Place-That Pet Place, who shipped much-needed supplies to me in record time, despite the disastrous weather.  The public aquariums for which I consult are now working frantically to limit losses; I’ll provide updates via Twitter.

Most aquarists know what steps to take during power outages, so today I’d like to focus on several points that, in my experience, are sometimes over-looked.

Filter Care and Bacteria Die-offs

When power fails, submersible, corner, and other internal filters should be removed from the aquarium.  When oxygenated water is flowing through a filter, waste material is processed by beneficial aerobic bacteria, and ammonia is converted to less toxic nitrites and nitrates (please see this article).  Once the flow of water stops, the resident beneficial bacteria perish.  Without aerobic bacteria, your filter becomes a source of decomposing organic material, quickly poisoning the already-stressed aquarium inhabitants.

As the contents of external aquarium filters are not in direct contact with the water, they will not immediately add to the pollution problem.  However, these filters should be disconnected because when electric power is restored, they will pump ammonia and other toxins into the tank. Read More »

Which Filter Should I Choose for My Aquarium?

Emperor Power Filter Choosing the right filter for your aquarium can be an intimidating task. We’re asked this question every day, from people setting up their first aquarium and from those hobbyists who are upgrading to a larger or different type of aquarium. Most people are looking for a quick and easy answer, which they rarely get from me.  There is no one-size-fits-all in the world of aquarium filters, and anyone who is new to aquariums, and is trying to do some research, is probably overwhelmed with all the options.  We have assembled a lot of good basic information for all the major types of aquarium filters in the article archives on thatpetplace.com. These articles are meant to help and guide you through the process of choosing a filter for your set-up by breaking down how each type works and in which applications they really shine.

The follow up question that I am often asked, is what is my favorite filter?  Again, that is not an easy question to answer with so many options, but I thought I might highlight a some of those I would recommend  from a few different filter types.

If you are looking for the most bang for your buck, especially for freshwater aquariums, it is hard to beat the good old power filter.  Also known as hang-on-the-back filters, power filters are easy to use, provide proven performance, and most are inexpensive and energy efficient.  My favorite power filters are the Marineland Emperor line.  These filters have been around for many years, and have changed very little since introduction.  There are two models of Emperor Filters available for under $50, that can handle aquariums up to 80 gallons.  The Emperor filters, if properly maintained, will provide excellent mechanical, biological and chemical filtration.  The Biowheel feature of these filters is what sets them apart from simpler power filters, they maintain biological filtration at all times, something that is lost on power filters that depend on their filter cartridges, which will lose all their bacteria when filters are changed.  These filters are great for any freshwater aquarium set-up as a standalone filter, or as part of a filtration system for saltwater aquariums.

Filstar Canister FilterFor larger aquariums or aquariums that demand more powerful or customized filtration, the next step up are the canister filters.  My choice in this category is another filter that is time tested, and has been around for many years, the API Filstar XP line of filters (Formerly known under the Rena brand name) The Filstar canister filters are available in several sizes, up to the XP XL model that is rated for aquariums up to 265 gallons.  Modular filter baskets allow you to customize your filter media, so you can add extra biological media for heavily stocked tanks, chemical media for low nutrient levels, peat moss for amazon tanks, the possibilities are endless.  These filters are quiet, energy efficient, and easy to set up.

ProFlex Model 1For the more advanced aquarist, especially the reef enthusiasts, the filtration system of choice is the Wet/Dry or Sump type of filtration system.  Ultimate flexibility, and high performance, are the key features of the these filters, and they are probably the most diverse of the filtration types, in terms of form and function.  My choice here is the relatively new Aqueon ProFlex filter system, mostly because of its 3 in 1, modular design.  With the ability to be used as a traditional Wet/Dry or Refugium, or Berlin style Sump, the filter has the ability to perform many functions as your needs change. If you want to convert your freshwater system to saltwater, your fish tank to a reef tank, or anywhere in between.  The Aqueon ProFlex can be whatever you need!

I hope that this helps guide you towards the filter you are looking for,

Until next blog,

Dave

Maintaining Aquarium Temperatures for Fish Health

Cichlid with ichMaintaining proper aquarium temperatures is essential for the health and well-being of your fish. While aquarium heaters do a pretty good job at this, the probability of fluctuations from fall through spring tends to be greater and possibly more detrimental. You may not even realize how much the temperature of the water changes through the day or day-to-day until you’re faced with ich or some other problem in your aquarium.

The Threat of Cool Temperatures

While our aquarium fish will rarely if ever be exposed to near or below freezing temperatures in the safety of your home (hopefully), fish farmers in Florida can attest to the immediate and lingering problems that can come with even short exposure to cold temps. Exposure to temps below 60 F can create chaos in a tropical tank, so you can imagine what freezing temps do to tropical fish housed in an outdoor setting. Sensitive fish may be killed outright from the shock of extreme temperatures or fluctuations in temperatures. Others face blows to their immune systems and the increased chance of being infected by opportunistic parasites, fungi or bacteria. These organisms take advantage at the slightest sign of stress on the part of tropical fish, and can decimate the population in a short amount of time. Cooler temperatures tend to make normally active fish lethargic and slower to react, making them more open to predation if outdoors. Similar problems can occur in the aquarium if smaller or more sensitive fish are not able to hide or escape the curiosity of larger, hardier tankmates.  Read More »

Cyanide Fish Collection

ReefIf you’ve ever had to catch a fish out of your aquarium (or watched the employees at your fish stores catch the fish for you to take home), you can probably appreciate how difficult it can be. These are in relatively small glass or acrylic boxes however; catching a fish from its own home turf is exponentially more difficult! Back when the marine aquarium trade was first gaining popularity in the mid-20th century, collection was usually laid at the feet of local islanders and fishermen, especially in the small Indo-Pacific island communities that may have had little other source of income. They naturally tried to optimize their collection and profits, but unfortunately this often came at the cost of the animals they were retrieving. Techniques like blast fishing (discussed in a May 2010 blog) and the use of cyanide became common. While not as physically destructive as blast fishing and bombs, cyanide collection was just as deadly. It is now illegal and banned in many areas, but enforcement can be spotty in these isolated areas and some of these irresponsible practices still occur. Read More »