Re:Getting A New Tank

#3989
Pete Giwojna
Guest

Dear hobbyist:

I think it’s an excellent idea for you to upgrade your seahorse setup and I would be happy to suggest a few options for you. For example, some hobbyists prefer to purchase a complete aquarium system that has been designed specifically for seahorses. That way they get everything they need in terms of filtration in one package and there is nothing more to install. In that case, the seahorse aquarium packages we discussed earlier on this forum may be worth considering:

For starters, it can recommend either the 45-gallon rectangular seahorse tank or the 35-gallon hexagonal seahorse tank available from MyFishTank.com at the following URL:

http://www.myfishtank.com/

They are beautifully designed aquariums that have the height (24 inches) and many of the features that are so desirable for a seahorse system. For example, they include a built-in a 3-in-1 filtration system that includes a wet/dry trickle filter that accommodates biological, chemical and mechanical filtration media, as well as built-in aquarium heater and an optional Clear-for-Life™ Venturi protein skimmer, all neatly contained and hidden behind a narrow false back. That’s an excellent filtration system for a seahorse setup!

As far as biofiltration goes, wet/dry trickle filters are probably the most desirable units for the seahorse keeper after live rock filtration. They are top-of-the-line units that feature a thin film of water trickling over filter media with an ultra-large surface area, thereby allowing maximum air-water contact. This provides excellent oxygenation with efficient offgassing, which is very important for seahorses. It helps keep dissolved oxygen levels high, CO2 low, and effectively prevents gas supersaturation, which can sometimes contribute to serious problems (gas bubble disease) for our aquatic equines. As an added benefit, wet/dry trickle filters can also support a tremendous population of aerobic nitrifying bacteria that provide remarkable biological filtration, which gives these systems excellent carrying capacity and a very nice margin for error for beginners. In addition, they have compartments built right in to accommodate a protein skimmer and chemical/mechanical filtration.

Best of all, the whole filtration system is built right into the aquarium as an integral part of the whole. It requires no drilling or plumbing or modifications in order to get it up and running. There’s nothing to install and the maintenance consists primarily of rinsing and/or replacing the prefilter regularly and replacing the chemical filtration media as needed. This would be a very easy system for beginners to set up and maintain.

And having all the filtration and equipment safely hidden away behind that false back is another big plus the seahorse keeper. Not only does it look nice, there are no cords, airlines, siphon tubes, or heaters hanging in the tank for seahorses to perch on high up in the water column. That makes it safer for the horses — no chance of heater burns and less risk of gas bubble disease from hanging high near the surface where there’s less hydrostatic pressure. Plus the filter intakes are all walled off from the seahorses — no way a curious seahorse will get sucked up against them or have its tall drawn into an intake tube.

As far as lighting goes, I understand these seahorse tanks are equipped with a fluorescent light fixture and a black ABS light hood. That’s perfectly adequate for a seahorse setup and I foresee no problems there at all.

The only complaint I have heard regarding these particular tanks is that it can sometimes be difficult to access and service the equipment behind a false back during routine maintenance, but having all of the equipment contained safely behind a false back is the safest arrangement for seahorses and gives the aquarium that polished "finished" or "prebuilt" appearance that many aquarists prefer. They are handsome aquarium systems in their own right as well as superior seahorse setups.

Either the rectangular seahorse tank or the hexagonal seahorse tank they offer would make a fine system for keeping a pair of Mustangs and a pair of Sunbursts. But the drawback for these complete aquarium packages is that they can be quite costly.

If your aquarium budget for this upgrade is tight and you are looking for a more economical set up for keeping a single pair of Sunbursts, perhaps the most basic aquarium system I could suggest would be to obtain a 20 gallon Extra-High All-Glass Aquarium (20"L x 10"W x 24"H), equip it with a simple, standard, off-the-shelf glass cover and an off-the-shelf strip reflector with a florescent bulb, and then fit it with a full set of undergravel filters that completely cover the bottom of the aquarium, as described below.

The filtration system for the tank could thus be as basic as a set of well-maintained undergravels (preferably the new reverse flow designs) that covers the bottom of the tank completely. I know undergravel filters are considered old-fashioned technology nowadays, but they are inexpensive, utterly reliable and foolproof (no moving parts), easy to install, require no modification whatsoever, and work extremely well for seahorses within their limitations. An inexpensive diaphragm air pump will operate the filter and provide all the aeration you need, or you can upgrade to powerheads for greater efficiency and extra water movement.

For the substrate with your undergravel filters, use a coarse bed of good calcareous aquarium gravel such as dolomite, aragonite, or crushed oyster shell 2-3 inches deep, since the buffering ability of such substrates will help maintain good pH.

It is a good idea to supplement the undergravels with an inexpensive hang-on-back filter or canister to provide better circulation and accommodate chemical filtration media. This is a very simple, inexpensive aquarium that’s extremely easy and economical to set up and operate, yet it can be very successful if used within its limitations. For instance, undergravel filters are notorious nitrate factories and the hobbyist must take measures to compensate for this fact. This simple system relies totally on water changes to control nitrates. There is no live rock or live sand bed to provide denitrification, no algal filter or denitrator in a sump, and no protein skimmer to remove organics before they enter the nitrogen cycle. This limits the carrying capacity of the tank and makes an accelerated maintenance schedule and more frequent water changes an absolute necessity. For this reason, reverse flow undergravels often work best with seahorses; they help prevent detritus from accumulating in the gravel bed.

I recommend weekly water changes of a least 25% for such a system. Use a gravel washer to clean a different portion of the gravel bed (no more than 25%) each week and keep the tank under stocked. If you are diligent about aquarium maintenance, perform water changes religiously, and limit yourself to fewer seahorses that you feed carefully, you will find that a simple system featuring undergravel filters can be very successful. But if you are negligent with regard to maintenance, skimp on water changes, or tend to overcrowd or overfeed your tanks, this system will be very unforgiving.

As we have already discussed, it’s generally best to start out with the largest tank you can reasonably afford and maintain, the taller the better, in order to provide yourself with a comfortable margin for error if these are your first seahorses. The 20-gallon Extra-High All Glass Aquarium we have already discussed is the smallest tank I would consider using for it pair of Sunbursts, but if you can afford to spend just a little more than I would suggest the 30 gallon Extra-High All-Glass Aquarium (24"L x 12"W x 24"H), which won’t cost much more but which will provide you with a bigger margin for error. Any local fish store can order one for you and it’s an economical tank with excellent height for seahorses at 24-inches tall. You can then equip it the same as the 20-gallon tank, using a simple, standard, off-the-shelf glass cover and an ordinary off-the-shelf strip reflector with a daylight florescent bulb, and that can form the basis of an inexpensive yet solid seahorse setup.

If you can afford to upgrade the filtration system a notch above undergravels, many seahorse keepers prefer well-cured, "debugged" live rock to provide all or most of the biofiltration for their aquariums. A simple external hang-on-the-back filter or an efficient canister filter instead that is rated for an aquarium of the size you have chosen could then be added on to provide water circulation, surface agitation for good oxygenation, and the means for providing mechanical and chemical filtration.

Of coarse, no matter what size aquarium you decide on for your upgrade, you will first have to cycle the tank before it will be able to support seahorses or any other life. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind when cycling your new setup:

Cycling the Aquarium

Once you’ve rounded up the aquarium, equipment, and accessories you need, your next task is to prepare the tank for cycling. Until it has cycled, your aquarium will be unable to support life. Cycling simply means to build up a healthy population of beneficial bacteria in your tank that can carry out the nitrogen cycle and breakdown your fishes’ waste products.

The amount of nitrates that accumulate in your aquarium are related to how much nitrification and denitrification your system provides. Nitrification is the process by which aerobic (oxygen loving) nitrifying bacteria break down toxic ammonia to relative harmless nitrate in a series of steps. Nitrification thus ultimately causes nitrate to build up in an aquarium. Denitrification is the process by which anaerobic (oxygen hating) denitrifying bacteria then convert nitrate into completely harmless nitrogen (N2), which eventually leaves the aquarium. Denitrification thus removes nitrate from your system. This entire process is known as the nitrogen cycle.

As I mentioned, cycling your aquarium simply means to build up a large enough population of beneficial bacteria in your tank that can carry out the nitrogen cycle and breakdown your fishes’ waste products. Ammonia (NH3), nitrite (NO2), and nitrate (NO3) are all nitrogenous (nitrogen containing) wastes. All living aquarium animals whether they be fish or invertebrates excrete these wastes, and they are also produced by the decay of protein-containing organic matter (uneaten food, detritus, dead fish or inverts, etc.). The nitrogen cycle breaks down these wastes in a series of steps into nitrogen gas (N2) which leaves the aquarium as bubbles.

The nitrogen cycle begins with ammonia, which is highly poisonous. In the first step of the cycle, Nitrosomonas bacteria reduce ammonia to nitrite, which is also very toxic. In the second step of the nitrogen cycle, Nitrobacter bacteria convert the nitrite to nitrate, which is relatively harmless but becomes harmful when it accumulates in high enough levels. In the third and final step of the cycle, denitrifying bacteria then convert the nitrate into completely harmless N2, which of course bubbles out of the tank as nitrogen gas. In this way, thanks to the nitrogen cycle, dangerous wastes are converted into progressively less harmful compounds and finally removed from the aquarium altogether.

When we set up a new aquarium, and wait for it to cycle, we are simply allowing a big enough population of these different types of bacteria to build up in the biofilter to break down all of the wastes that will be produced when the aquarium is stocked. If we don’t wait long enough for the cycle to complete itself and the biofiltration to become fully established, or hastily add too many specimens to a new aquarium too soon, they will die from ammonia poisoning or nitrite toxicity. This is such a common mistake among us impatient aquarists, that when fish get sick and/or die from ammonia/ntrite poisoning, it is commonly called the "new tank syndrome."

When your aquarium has completely cycled, the ammonia levels will stay at zero because, now that your biofilter is fully established, there is a large enough population of aerobic (oxygen loving) nitrifying Nitrosomonas bacteria to reduce all of the ammonia to nitrite as fast as the ammonia is being produced. The nitrite levels will likewise stay at zero because there is also a large enough population of aerobic (oxygen loving) nitrifying Nitrobacter bacteria to convert all of the nitrite to nitrate as fast as the nitrite is being produced.

The nitrate levels ordinarily continue to build up, however, because there are simply not enough anaerobic (oxygen hating) denitrifying bacteria to convert all of the nitrate that’s being produced into nitrogen gas (N2). Since nitrates are being produced faster than they can be transformed to nitrogen gas, the excess nitrates accumulate steadily in your aquarium. That’s perfectly normal, since the denitrifying bacteria that carry out that final step, the conversion of nitrate (NO3) to nitrogen (N2), are anaerobes that can only exist in the absence of oxygen. For our aquariums to support life, and for the fish and invertebrates to breathe and survive, our tanks must be well aerated and well circulated so that there’s plenty of dissolved oxygen in the water at all times. That means there are normally very few areas in our aquariums where anaerobic denitrifying bacteria can survive, limiting their population accordingly (which is generally good, since some anaerobes produce deadly hydrogen sulfide gas during the decay of organic matter and would poison our tanks if allowed to proliferate).

Consequently, most aquariums lack a sufficient population of anaerobic denitrifying bacteria to complete the nitrogen cycle and convert nitrate to nitrogen as fast as the nitrates are being produced. The only way to keep the nitrates from building up to harmful levels in such setups is with regular water changes and by harvesting Caulerpa or other macroalgae periodically after it has utilized nitrates for growth. Overcrowding, overfeeding, or under filtration exacerbate the problem by resulting in more nitrates being produced and more frequent water changes being required to control the nitrate levels.

Live rock helps because the oxygen-poor interior of the rock allows anaerobic denitrifying bacteria to grow and break down nitrates. A deep live sand bed (DLSB) also helps because anaerobic denitrifying bacteria can flourish and break down nitrates at a certain depth below the sand where oxygenated water no longer penetrates, but a DLSB can sometimes be difficult to set up and manage properly if you’re inexperienced with live sand. Both live rock and deep live sand beds give aquaria denitrification ability — the ability to complete the cycle and convert nitrate to harmless nitrogen. Ordinarily, about 1-2 pounds of live rock per gallon is recommended – that amount of LR will provide your aquarium with all of the biofiltration you need, as well as significant denitrification ability. You will keep nitrates at harmless levels by performing regular water changes, harvesting Caulerpa macroalgae periodically, and good aquarium management.

Prepare your aquarium for cycling by setting your system up with just freshwater at first, attaching the equipment and apparatus (filter, aeration, circulation, heater, skimmer, lighting, accessories) and testing it all for a day or so to make sure you have everything in place, and that it works. Once assured that everything’s operating properly and there are no leaks, go ahead and add the substrate, salt mix, and aquarium décor, and leave everything running for a good week, allowing the various components and water to "settle in" before adding your microbes and "seeding" the tank with beneficial bacteria that will eventually establish your biofilter.

If you are using live rock, it contains all the bacteria needed to seed the tank, so all you have to do is position the live rock in attractive arrangements and wait for the population of nitrifying and denitrifying bacteria to build up and stabilize.

If you are not using live rock, there are a number of different ways to seed the tank with bacteria and feed it with ammonia so cycling can proceed. Two popular methods are the fishless cycle, which I recommend, and the use of hardy, inexpensive (i.e., expendable) fish to produce ammonia and cycle the aquarium.

Often used for this method are marine damselfish or mollies, which can easily be converted to saltwater. Both are very hardy and generally survive the cycling process, but I find this method to be needlessly hard on the fish and exposing them to the toxic ammonia and nitrite produced during cycling certainly causes them stress. Damselfish are far too aggressive and territorial to leave in the aquarium afterwards as tankmates for seahorses, and it can be devilishly difficult trying to capture them in a tank with lots of live rock so they can be removed once the tank has been cycling. Mollies are a possibility, but they really look out of place in a saltwater setup. Even if the fish survive the cycling process, the stress from the build up of ammonia and nitrite may well result in an outbreak of marine ich (Cryptocaryon irritans) or some other affliction, and you may find yourself attempting to eradicate a stubborn pathogen from your tank before it’s ready for the seahorses.

So all things considered, I suggest you try cycling your tank without fish. It’s really very easy. To use the fishless cycle, you need to add something else that will increase the ammonia level so the nitrifying bacteria can build up. I like to use a piece of cocktail shrimp (regular uncooked eating shrimp from the grocery store) and leave this in the tank to decay during the whole cycle. The decaying shrimp produces plenty of ammonia to kick-start the cycling process.

After about 3 days after you add the shrimp, you will notice a spike in ammonia levels until the Nitrosomonas bacteria build up enough to break down the ammonia. When that happens, you will notice the ammonia levels rapidly dropping. (If for some reason your ammonia does not hit the top of the charts initially, you may want to add another piece of shrimp.)

The byproduct of ammonia is nitrite, and during this stage of the cycling process, as the ammonia falls, you will have a corresponding increase in nitrites until the population of Nitrobacter bacteria builds up. Nitrite levels will then fall as the Nitrobacter convert the nitrite to nitrate.

It is important to use your test kits every day or two when cycling your tank to monitor the progress of the process. As described above, at first you will see a rapid rise in ammonia levels with no detectable nitrite or nitrate. Then, as Nitrosomonas bacteria begin converting ammonia to nitrite, the ammonia levels will fall and nitrite readings will steadily rise. Nitrite levels will peak as the ammonia drops to zero. Next, Nitrobacter will begin converting the nitrite to nitrate, and your nitrite readings will fall as the level of nitrate rises. Finally, after the nitrites also read zero, you are ready to stock your tank. At this point, your ammonia and nitrite levels should both be zero, nitrates will be building up, and algae will usually begin to grow. This will tell you that your biofilter is active and functioning properly, and that you can now safely begin stocking the tank. It generally takes about 3-6 weeks to cycle a tank this way from scratch.

Best of luck upgrading to a more spacious aquarium for your Sunbursts!

Respectfully,
Pete Giwojna


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