Newbie Starts With Nofilter 4gal Nano Tank- I Have Questions

  • #1
Hey guys.

I've been reading for awhile and I love it. You guys are awesome.

So I watched a gazillion freshwater aquascape videos and decided to pull the trigger and make my own an I went with a no filter freshwater tank. I started with an inch of composted potting soil under a about two inches of river rocks and started with only plants. I have a CFL bulb about 4 inches above the surface running at 16 hours because I wanted my plants to grow fast and I wanted algae because I wanted shrimp. (remember, total noob)

When I initially filled the tank, the water was cloudy and stayed that way for a week. So I did a big water change and it cleared up. The moment I saw any algae, I bought a zebra snail and an amano (about a week and a half in, with hindsight, not so smart). The zebra was doing great but the amano was dead within 24 hours. I think it's because I didn't respect the acclimation process enough and the amano and snail were in my tank within 20 minutes. Then the water starts browning, and had a very slight pond-like smell to it. I went away on a trip over a weekend, and when I came back, a quarter of my duckweed was dead or dying and the culprit was a bacopa that stayed exceptionally green to the end but died. When I touched it, despite it looking fresh and green just disintegrated. At this point, the water smelled pretty bad and was very brown with both brown algae on my plants and green on my rocks and glass.

In hindsight, I think my rock cap was too large as it was hard to get plants near the soil. Also, I didn't completely turn-over the tank but if I ever do, I'm going to use smaller rocks since I think I damage the plants as I plant them.

Also, the zebra snail is a champ. Survived all of it, even the putrid water and seemed quite happy. At some point, I also tried one ghost shrimp but it died in less than 24 hours.

So 2.0. I removed almost all the water, washed and trimmed all the plants, planted a few more, removed nearly half the rock cap, vacuumed the rock cap, and refilled with water. The water went cloudy but this time cleared up in less than 24 hours. A week later, everything is going well, water quality is definitely way different than the first go around. Yes, I have melting plants and it's supremely annoying but they are growing new buds so I think persistence is the key here. Everything is going well so I order more plants, get two more nerites and 4 whisker shrimp. The nerites are all happy, one shrimp got sick and died, but the other three are thriving.

Three weeks into the restart, I decided that I want some driftwood. I bought one from my LFS, washed it, scrubbed it, and then stuck it in my tank to start soaking. Here is the problem. about 24 hours after I put the driftwood in, I see a cloudy formation forming on the driftwood. I read that this is just a normal bacterial boom and should subside on it's own. But when I look really carefully at the cloudy formation, I can see these tiny little specs swimming inside the cloud. 8 hours later, the white specs are now all over the water, but they are so tiny, I can't ID them. Some of them, still too small to photograph look long in comparison to it's body. The longest one I found was about 3mm.

Should I do anything about this?
(the two photos of the whole tank are taken 24 hours apart. In the second photo, you can really see the cloudy wisps, and I tried to get some of the specs on camera but again, way too tiny. The water is extremely still. The water is only disturbed by shrimp, and pearling from my water onion and moss balls.)

I was concerned after I put the driftwood in and so I took some water to the LFS, got it tested, and all my parameters are fine (I didn't think to ask for numbers) however, my nitrates are as she said, getting high and getting there.

Is this something I need to be concerned about? Is it just part of the natural cycling? Am I still cycling? How do I know when it's over. Is it a nitrate spike from the driftwood? The shrimps all seem fine. I was thinking that I should get a small fish to eat all the worm like creatures, but my nitrates are too high.

Also, what is the generally accepted opinion with changing the water this early into the tank. I've read people who said don't and I've read from people who say it's crucial for a starting tank.

This morning, when the cloudy whisps looked more like a slimey layer, I took the drift wood out and scrubbed it. I plan on boiling it later.

Thanks in advance!
Also, I know this is a very aggressive tank for a newbie but I'm fixated on getting this tank to work.

Also, I forgot to mention. In tank 2.0, the photo period was reduced to 12 hours and the light is now about a foot from the surface. Still getting brown algae. If my nitrates drop, I am planning on getting a couple amanos to deal with the brown algae and a bunch of cherry shrimp because there they are cool and I want babies (for a fish to eventually control the population of).


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  • #2
I would purchase apI master kit for testing water. its the most accurate one. your LFS most likely uses test strips which are not accurate. always ask for numbers tho. read up on nitrogen cycle before adding any fish. the white stuff hairy floating stuff on driftwood is normal and most fish and shrimps will eat it. drift wood will lower your pH and if it goes below 6.0 it will stall your cycle. brown algae is normal as well (I had it in my both fish in and fishless cycle) nerite snails are perfect for it and my cleaned it up within couple of days. shrimps are very sensitive to bad water aka high ammo high nitrites or high nitrates so that could be the reason they died so fast. also if yo uare not running filter at all, it could take lot longer to cycle tank as most of beneficial bacteria is in the filter media. are you running water bubbler? because without oxygen nothing will survive there for a long time. strongly recommend using Tetra safestart+ as it has bacteria in the bottle and your tank would cycle within two weeks (most reports including mine) if you choose to add fish while cycling. be aware of copper as any detectable in the water is bad for shrimps. also snails like hard water. I'm sure other can contribute more but this is off top of my head
  • #3
I recommend you start off the conventional way and with a conventional planted tank.

Learn how to do that - and then as your knowledge progresses - you will learn how to make a much more advanced setup work. So for example you will still need to get your nitrification cycle established.

The thing is - there are a lot of things that are glossed over (or ignored) in the videos and online posts.... Many of those things are critical but they are perceived as too boring or too complicated for a 5 or 10 minute video. Or they just assume you already know it if you are doing the same things.

For example - shrimp are often quite sensitive to water quality and especially changes in water parameters.

Or another example is that you generally need some water circulation to prevent things from going stagnant. Adding a cheap hob filter, a simple sponge filter or even a good air stone can go a long way towards getting the water moving...

Last - small tanks are actually far more difficult to manage than large ones. Large tanks have far more room for error and generally don't change quickly. A small tank can swing wildly within one day and drive you bonkers.
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  • #4
As as bacteria, after the first fiasco. I've been dosing my tank once a week with sludge eating bacteria and after the high nitrate test, I put in a nitrifying starter as it said it'd help ammonia and nitrate levels. It's been just a few days since I added the starter. I think my oxygen is ok because the amount of bubbles that my water onion and moss balls release are... well alarming at first until I realised it was a good thing. Alarming because they're are so many bubbles on the surface of my water towards the and of the day. Some of the bubbles come from the substrate so I know I have co2 production happening... dunno. Shrimps are still thriving. So are my snails. But the snails poop everywhere. So opinions about water changes?
  • #5
Whisker shrimp tend to be more aggressive than your average shrimp. Many have had them kill their ghost shrimp or fish, or at least bully them. I wouldn't advise getting too much more for the tank with these guys in there. If these are true whiskers it may be a good idea to replace them or keep the tank as is. I wouldn't like to risk fish or others with them personally.

Otherwise I would agree with above. Best to start out in the hobby with a more standard setup. With a filter. Do water changes weekly. With the shrimp I'd do around 15-25%. That is if the water parameters are stable. If its cycling I'd water change as you test the water. If water quality is going bad, water change.
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  • #6
Also, with the brown algae, I have to wipe it off the roots off my duckweed and frogbit or the root will eventually die. Super annoying but I've been doing it by hand.

As for the tank, I have it, cost-wise and space-wise this is the most I'm willing to do now and I have it. I want it to work, I'm invested in it personally at this point because I feel like I've grown with the tank as it changed and matured.

The shrimp, I'm of the mind that I'd rather move the whisker shrimp to a new tank I'm considering because for this tank, I want algae eaters and a whole lots of cherry shrimp roaming about and maybe one small fish eventually.

So, what do I do about the white flecks swimming around?
  • #7
Any idea what they are? Seed shrimp?

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  • #8
Truckjohn So I'm looking at pics of seed shrimp, and maybe some of the white flecks are seed shrimp? Some of them move around like a seed shrimp might jagged straight movements... but some of them are longer (about 2mm to 3mm tops) and wiggle like worms. They don't seem to be burrowing into my substrate. Just floating... both the worms and not worms. Some of the longer ones are on the glass. So I use a magnetic cleaner on the front wall of my tank but not the others for the snails. The longer ones are on the glass that I don't wipe. Still too small to tell if it's planaria or detritus worms... but they are still so small. They look like they might have exhausted whatever they were eating because some of them float, but don't move at all (both worms and dots).
  • #9
A hungry betta or molly would probably eat them....
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  • #10
Truckjohn I know to wait for my nitrates to drop but how do I know that the tank is done cycling and ready?

Also, question to the community... all things considered... how am I doing? Other than suggesting that I stop this tank and do a traditional one... any other suggestions?
  • #11
Also, question to the community... all things considered... how am I doing? Other than suggesting that I stop this tank and do a traditional one... any other suggestions?
One thing I'll say. Shrimp should really be introduced to an established tank. Not a newly cycled tank, definitely not an uncycled tank. Generally its best to cycle and then let the tank mature for a few months to give them and the shrimplets the best chance.

You should also acclimate them correctly. Drip acclimate them. Shrimp can be susceptible to bad tank conditions. Which is why a filtered, cycled, established tank is preferred. Make sure to target feed them too, algae and biofilm is important but other foods are a must. It wouldn't hurt to get a GH test to check if your water is appropriate. Usually I prefer a bigger tank for them, but some do keep them in smaller tanks.

If you want to do best for cherries make sure to keep the tank around 73 degrees.
  • #12
So, since it seems you are dead set on doing this...

There is no reason why this kind of tank wouldn't work for a beginner if you are set on it - BUT don't go to livestock beyond snails too quickly. Get the hang of the cycle, the plants and the microorganisms first. And the snails.
As you've guessing making your cap on the soil too thick can be a real problem, and from your photos it is (was?) too thick. You could even consider leaving it out and just doing soil without any cap (though it will make water changes bothersome).
Your plants are looking pretty good actually! I would recommend more though, stuff that tank. Get some really fast growing stuff beyond the duckweed, the moss balls don't do much. The bacopa is good but there should be more, maybe get some inexpensive anarchis, hornwort, hydrocolyte, etc. Hands full. Once it really starts to take off you can worry about balancing it out. This is what prevents your algae from getting out of control.
Also really helpful is getting something emersed. Like a peace lily hanging with its roots in the water but at least one leaf above it. Other plants that work include Chinese evergreens, pothos, wandering jew and sweet potato.

Get a test kit so you can check the actual numbers of ammonia, nitrite etc. for yourself. "it's fine" from a pet shop doesn't always mean zero, and you need to know the difference between 0.25 and 0 to know if you are cycled. But yes, you could be cycled in that amount of time, it is possible.

If you are having serious trouble with plant growth you could also consider either adding an air stone to increase surface agitation or lowering the water level so that the surface area compared to the water volume is much greater. Water movement isn't strictly necessary depending on the set-up but if you plan on adding livestock I would definitely recommend it unless you have a super shallow tank or one that is so stuffed with plants there is barely space for the fish to swim.

Finally I'm guessing from the description you've just got detritus worms that came out of your substrate and were attracted to the wood due to tasty growths and are now sinking back slowly or looking for more snacks. Micro life like that is actually good, you want it in there. Just let it be.

Edit: Oh, as for water changes, I don't care what anyone says. Do them. Just as you would on a regular tank. There is no single good argument for not doing them whereas there are a lot for doing them. Your tank (whether plants, snails or other livestock) will get in trouble eventually if you don't do them.
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  • #13
Yes... very aggressive for a newbie. I've always learned best by diving head first into things... so here I am with this tank. It's composted soil under my rock cap. Started with only plants, wisteria, amazon sword, marimo moss ball, water onion bulb, and cultured bacopa.

It started roughly, I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. Several deep water changes needed in the beginning. The bacopa you see eventually rotten while I was out of town, fouled the water so I drained the water, vacuumed the rocks, refilled. This time, everything went "according to plan".

Currently, there are wisteria, amazon sword, rotala indica, rotala macrandra, mongo grass, water onion, duckweed, frogbit, and marimo moss balls. Three whisker shrimp, 2 zebra snails, 1 tiger snail, and one hitch-hiker baby that is still too small for me a newbie to ID.

So far, it seems that all inhabitants are happy.

Yes. I've made mistakes, but this is fun.

How am I doing?

I have plenty of pearling on my moss balls, and the onion bulb... it looks like lather above it from how much it pearls. The surface of my water always have a ton of bubbles.
CO2-wise, my potting-soil seems to be making bubbles that occasionally come up through the rock cap.

I am absolutely fixated on doing whatever I have to achieve balance in this tank so any advice is super welcome.


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  • #14
I have been thinking very hard about a large bowl-walstad- type-tank, myself.
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  • #15
PascalKrypt Thank you! Very helpful.
Yes. In the beginning I was wondering if I should just give up, replace my substrate with active store-bought, and just slapping a filter on it, especially when the water fouled.

But going through the process, adding things, maintaining the plants, the fouled water... I'm super invested in this tank now. Like, I care about how it turns out now, instead of just being some kind of experiment for me, which is how it started. I gave myself a max budget of $100, and I'm now I'm well beyond that because I want it to work, I care about it, and I want to achieve balance. Badly.

It's really just for my own personal satisfaction while I spend inordinate amounts of time just sitting in-front of it just watching it and overthinking about it as I currently do now. Like I am now fully hooked to this hobby in general and I'm planning a second taller tank (for new stemmed plants) and what else I want to make.

I agree with the plants. I want way more. I'm propagating the rotala when they get long. My next purchase, which I've limited myself to just once a week, will be probably java moss and dwarf grass. The LFS sold me mongo grass leading me to believe that it was an aquatic grass. It's planted, hasn't died yet, but seem stalled. I'm going to wait until I know that they will die before pulling them out. Best case scenario... it grows tall and over the surface of the water and thrives.

I actually own a filter, I use it once in a while to help get rid of my excess detritus. Like I want some, but I like to swirl my tongs near the substrate and plants to get it all in the water along with some algae and run the filter for like 20 minutes if I think that it's getting excessive. So far, the whole life of the tank, I've only used it once. I just really like the idea of a self-contained eco-system that needs nothing from me but light, occasional trimming and propagation, and regular partial water changes. I only want to do a 25% or a third once a week at the very very most.

I just bought the liquid test kit everyone said I should get, arrives by the end of the week.

Regarding the worms, from all my research, I've learned that just because something appears, doesn't mean it's a bad thing. I was actually initially excited because if there were lots of them and they kept growing, it means I can get something predatory that'll eat them. I was super worried it might be planaria because I think they are so gross and my rock cap is barely and inch and a half so they will get soil into my water. But alas, my nitrates... so no fish. ugh. But patience...

Also, the baby snail I found, it's starting to look more like a ramshorn. I'm still trying to decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing as I read that they CAN reproduce in freshwater and not brackish, and they are prolific breeders. But at this point I've read so much from so many different places, I'm not sure I have it straight anymore.

Maybe I can let the snail reproduce and watch my whisker shrimp pick on them. Maybe if there are a lot, it's another excuse to try to balance the tank with a predatory fish or something. Initially, I wanted to replace the whisker shrimp with amanos and cherrys and let a fish control the population of the cherrys. But rolling with the punches... it might be whisker shrimp vs ramshorn snails.

Again... unless I'm totally off on something I think I know.

But thanks again. Really helpful.
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  • #16
KatLovesCoffee You know what got me to pull the trigger? I know my first tank will likely fail. In fact I was expecting to fail. And I did. Spectacularly.

But I learned so much from the failing that I think it really benefitted the reboot a lot.

Once I knew that I was going to fail... I just got started.
  • #17
Thanks. I’ll take a look. I’ve always been a trial by fire kind of girl, myself, so I get that.

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