I think I just need a plan to get through this?

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Aquarium Advice Newbie
Oct 11, 2020
Hi folks, first post here, got back into fish keeping when quarantine started and made a mess, now I need to figure out how to fix it.

I've scoured the web and tackled many problems, but I just cannot get my tank under control. I need help formulating a plan and making sure I'm back on the right path.

I have an RO/DI system coming in a month, but I need to keep things stable until then.


40 Gallon breeder, filled June 24th
2x 25 gallon sponge filters running off of a 60 gallon air pump.
18 inch Planted 24/7 light running for - 3hrs 10%W 10%B 10%R 0%G, 6hrs 100%WRBG, 3hrs 10%W 20%R 10%B 10%G, 12hrs off.
Heater set and reading at 75ºF on both sinking thermometer and sticker thermometer.
No CO2, only fertilization was root tabs and fish poo, I used Seachem flourish for a week when I thought things were stable but it just fed algae so I stopped.

Substrate & Hardscape:

70% Caribsea Eco Complete 30% Sand. Mopani wood and driftwood, stone.
Water Parameters:
ph 8.0, KH 80, GH 120(I am aware that these are high but I live in a decent sized city with plenty of people in the hobby that don't use RO and only use water conditioner. Regardless I am getting an RO unit as mentioned.

Ammonia and Nitrites have consistently read 0 since July 19th. Nitrates hung in the 40s after I began stocking and normally read 5-10 since July 19th depending on the time of day I tested. I did test today and they all read solid zero including nitrates with both strips and a liquid test. However I just did a 50% water change on Friday and have not been feeding for about 4 days, I fed a pinch of first bites today and have not tested again after feeding.

Current Stocking: I am in Iowa and the Derecho storm on August 10th knocked out my power for a week so my stocking may seem a bit weird as that is when the tank became as bad as it is.

1 Assassin snail who seems to be doing his job with the bladder snails, the tank has a wide variety of plants that I can begin listing as needed, the snails do not bother healthy plants.
2 Red Cherry shrimp, 3 up until Thursday, started with 11, many vanished due to one of my many mistakes that we will discuss below.
2 Harlequin Rasboras. I started with 11 of these as well, I believe I lost some to multiple ich infections and the rest during the power outage.
9 Chili Rasboras
3 Adult and 2 Adolescent Panda Corydoras
1 Female Sparkling Gourami

So let's start with the stuff I did wrong.

I got some quick start and added 5 Adult Corydoras after 2 days of the tank being set up and continued adding fish pretty much weekly after that. Weekly water changes of 25% until stable and 8% weekly after that with additional small(8%) changes if I saw a problem. I did 50% on Friday after losing a shrimp and noticing a lot of waste build up on my substrate. The only other time I have done 50% was after the power had been out for a week.

I wanted to take full advantage of my super cool lights so until about a month ago I had them on an 18 hour on 6 hour off cycle with the lighting all over the place. I feel like my current adjusted lighting is correct for a tank without problems but I may need to continue adjusting?

The only plants I had to start with were 2 bunches of DHG poorly separated and an Anubias on a piece of driftwood. I have replanted the DHG and it is slowly spreading and I have added a ton of other plants, but probably not enough, I want to add more plants but I want the tank under control first.

I was not doing a good job of siphoning up waste and uneaten food when doing water changes, there seems to be a lot of conflicting advice on how to change water in a planted tank when it comes to cleaning the substrate and areas around your hardscape.

I was also treating my tapwater in a 5 gallon bucket or sometimes distilling it in 1 gallon jugs overnight and then adding water treatment to each jug individually. I was also pouring from the 5 gallon bucket and stirring up my substrate after having siphoned out the old water.

I was feeding my Corydoras primarily algae wafers, I believe that may explain some of the disappearing shrimp and at least one Corydora death.

Once I switched the Corydoras to shrimp pellets I was overfeeding for about 2 weeks.

Probably a bunch of other mistakes.

What I've changed/am changing.

I've obviously stopped adding fish. The last addition was the Sparkling Gourami 9/14.

My water is now circulated in a covered 32 gallon trashcan with a powerhead for at least 24 hours, it is dechlorinated when I fill the trashcan and tested immediately before using. I also run a heater in the trashcan on water change day to get the temperature the same. This is new as of last week, I am open to advice about keeping it full or cleaning it each time I use it, as well as when to add water conditioner. KH & GH listed above are what my water reads after circulating over night, again I have an RO coming but I know others are keeping fish in these parameters.

I am not stirring up my substrate when siphoning but I am paying closer attention to making sure any waste matter is sucked off the bottom.

Fresh water is added back to the tank slowly using a pump after water has been removed.

Lighting is now on a 12/12 schedule with only 6 hours of full brightness, but I'm guessing I may need to reduce it more, and I'm almost wondering if this wasn't my biggest mistake at the beginning.


Picked up 5 Harlequin Rasboras and 6 Neon tetras from Petco June 29th so 5 days after setup, 3 days after adding 5 Panda Corydoras. The tetras all died but I assumed it was a fluke, exchanged them for 6 Harlequin Rasboras and everyone was good.

Mid July a couple of the Harlequins died and I noticed white buildup on some of the others so I treated the tank for a week with ich-x, no other fish had problems and by this point I had added the 9 Chili Rasboras and had 5 adult Panda Corydoras at the time. 2 weeks after I finished treating the tank I lost 2 more Harlequins, still no problems with any other fish. I treated for another week and didn't lose any more fish.

Then we had the power outage.
No power for a week, it was 90º outside some days, I expected to lose the Chili Rasboras if I'm being honest or the whole tank. Ended up losing all but 2 Harlequins and 3 Cherry shrimp, the Corydoras and the Chili Rasboras were pale but otherwise seemed fine. I think this is where things really fell apart.

Once power was restored I did a 25% water change and then another 8% water change 3 days later. Mind you at this time I was just siphoning water out, I wasn't sucking up debris, and I was then pouring water in from a 5 gallon bucket.

Things seemed ok and then I was doing a weekly water change and one of the Corys went belly up. At first I thought it was stress so I turned the lights off for the rest of the day and that actually seemed to work, but he ended up dying a few days later. This is when I realized I wasn't feeding them enough protein and switched to shrimp pellets.

Being an idiot I also went and bought 5 small Panda Corydoras to replace the one that had died. So if you've been following along I now had 9 Chili Rasboras, 2 Harlequin Rasboras and 9 Panda Corys(4L & 5sm).

So I do a water change a week later I leave the lights off for a few hours and turn them back on that evening and watch the tank for about 20 minutes, all good. Cue 2 hours later I'm walking by the ****ing tank and see one of the Corydoras flash and start struggling. Got it into a quarantine tank but it died like an hour later. At this point I'm scared to do water changes and I've done a kitchen counter necropsy on a fish while googling every image of fish diseases I can find.

I conclude that it's bacterial and dose Melafix for a week, cut back on feeding and starting being anal about removing uneaten food as well as telling my wife not to move to quickly near the tank so she doesn't scare the fish. Ended up losing 3 more of the small corys before I finished treatment but things looked good for about 2 weeks after that so I added more plants and the Sparkling Gourami.

I thought it was starting to stabilize mid September, the water was nice and clear, the plants were all looking nice and green but it got really cloudly again at the beginning of the month, everything seems to have had a brown film over it on Friday when I changed the water. I tried to clean off the plants and the driftwood without removing them from the tank, I understand that cleaning everything too thoroughly is going to do more harm than good.

I would swear up and down that all of the fish looked good on Friday after the water change, but yesterday I noticed one of the adult Corydoras had a severly infected barbel so I immediately began treating with Melafix again and assumed it was Columnaris, however upon doing a bit more research and looking at the development of the wound as of today I think it may actually be Saprolegnia so I am treating with Pimafix as well.

At this point all of my DHG has brown algae growing all over it, I've trimmed it back, my Anubias has a thick black algae on it. Java moss and Wysteria that were added recently have slowly browned at the edges and are being overtaken by algae. Things like Telanthera and Arrow Plant have just melted away. Even my hornwort has started to grow brown algae while melting a bit.

The only plants that seem to be holding their own are Java Ferns, Aponogeton, Chain Sword and strangely a Cardinal Plant. The Anubias is growing nicely but it is covered in algae.

Going Forward:

I'm frustrated, embarrassed, disappointed. I'm not going to give up, I know for a fact that I can keep fish well, but I know I caused a lot of my own problems. I just want a gorgeous planted tank with healthy fish. I need to figure out how to dig myself out of this hole and get there.

My water is being addressed as much as it can be addressed. I don't think an RO is the magical solution to my problems but I am getting it for peace of mind.

At this point I am not sure if I should even continue to bother with medication, it feels like I am throwing **** at the wall and seeing what sticks.

This is my first time keeping a planted tank. I'm used to under gravel filters with powerheads and HOB filters. I've been told up and down that for a planted tank all you need is sponge filters and plants will keep the substrate clean.

Speaking of substrate, everyone raves about how great Corydoras are and how easy they are and how rough substrate doesn't hurt them if your water is clean. But everyone also raves about how sensitive they are to sheets with low thread count and overly aggressive tone of voice.

I am well aware of how much I ****ed up the cycling process of my tank in the beginning and I'm paying for it now, so unless you have a solution besides draining it and starting over then you can just assume your input has already been shared.

I got something called Vibrant from the LFS but I don't want to keep throwing chemicals at the tank. I also have Seachem Stability available but same logic.

I intend to cut back to feeding once or twice a week and monitoring to remove uneaten food.

Changing the substrate honestly seems like a ridiculous suggestion, I understand that Corys have sensitive mouths but there are posts all over the web saying it shouldn't be an issue.

As far as cleaning goes obviously I will continue to do weekly water changes while taking extra care to siphon up waste that has settled. I am tempted to do another small water change for the sole purpose of removing waste before doing my weekly on Friday, but I am also reluctant because I just did 50%.

I could potentially remove all of the hardscape and plants and do a really thorough cleaning of the substrate and skim waste out of the tank with a net.

I could reduce the lighting even more and this is something I am wondering about quite a bit.

I could drain the whole god **** thing and try again in 3 months.

If you've made it this far thank you for reading. I guess I'm looking for advice on how to recover, or if I even can.

tl;dr drain it or keep trudging forward?
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