Looks nice, doesn't it?
If only you knew the hassle I went through setting this baby up, the completed and problem-free final picture would look sweeter than a Whitman sampler of gold nuggets and a bouquet of hundred dollar bills. Thing is, you are going to know what I went through, cause I'm going to tell you the whole sordid, never-ending tale below.
I began this tank because a large space in our small, cramped apartment became open and available. We had just moved around our bedroom, and by moving the bed, we had a lot more space for our desks and other things. I moved my massive clear plastic Rubbermaid tank of hermit crabs to the bedroom to place them next to our electric heater to keep them warm throughout the winter. This made the space in the living room where the crabs had once been prime real estate for a serious, not-messing-around fish tank.
I think a lot of people don't realize how massive 55 gallon aquariums actually are. I know I sure didn't. I'm 5'4", about 125 pounds soaking wet, and I could easily fit inside this thing. It takes up the whole stretch of our living room wall. See the red background in the back? That's Leah's Hindu/Persian inspired tapestry. Note I aquascaped the tank to match the colors of the backdrop.
The substrate is 65% black gravel, 35% white natural mixed, though it looks more like 50/50. If I had it to do over again, I'd go pure black gravel, or I'd only cut it with a half bag of white. The terracotta pieces are all from the same pot, a strawberry pot with multiple holes along the sides for creeping vines. It's an ideal hiding spot for loaches and other bottom feeders. My black ghost knife loves the central piece, which is actually two shards placed together.
I have two pieces of driftwood on the right, "green" side of the tank. Driftwood is a necessary part of pleco's diets. My royal pleco is always hanging out and gnawing on one of the two pieces.
I have several suction-cupped plants to the back of the tank, hiding the two filter intakes and boxes. Two Marineland Visi-therm heaters keep the water at a steady 82 degrees for the discus.
I've tanned the water by removing carbon from the filter bags and replacing it with peat. This gives the tank a red, tea-colored look that I particularly enjoy. I may scatter cleaned oak leaves across the bottom of the tank, but I have no plans to do that anytime soon.
For a while, I had a family of four clown loaches. Unfortunately, my favorite fish, my first clown loach, died tragically by eating on a faulty heater. A second succumbed to the wasting away symptom of intestinal parasites. When I introduced the three new clowns, they were struck with ich and I treated with salt and heat for ten days, which wiped out the protozoan. My black ghost knife and the tank's other occupants all handled the raised heat and salinity just fine. I definitely recommend the salt and heat treatment for ich every time.
There was also a case of intestinal parasites with the blue snakeskin discus. I used Seachem's pure metronidazole in the water column to cure that, as well as fresh minced garlic juice. Garlic is a natural anti-internal parasite agent and also stimulates the appetites of picky or non-eating fish.
Thanks to many aquarium hobbyist's rigid attitudes and closed minds, I'm going to add a couple footnotes here about the stock of my tank for any nay-sayers. Yes, it's overstocked. A good rule of thumb is one inch of fish per gallon of space. It's not a guideline, and there are many variables involved in stocking a tank, such as the dimensions of your tank, rectangular versus hexagonal, live plants, filtration, type of fish, nature and temperment of fish, etc. Bala sharks are clocked at getting over a foot, and black ghost knives grow to 20" in the wild. The royal pleco will also reach a maximum size of a foot in length. Then there were the clown loaches, which can reach a foot from nose to tail.
Now let me say this about my bioload:
Clown loaches are slow growers. Given a minimal bioload, two or three can live comfortably in a 29 gallon aquarium for years before they need more space. It's rare to find a clown loach for sale over three inches. Personally, I've never seen a loach over seven inches, and as Harry S. Truman said, I'm from Missouri, so show me and then I'll believe. The 15" adult size that some people quote is simply ridiculous. I'm not saying a loach in a home aquarium cannot grow to that length; I am merely saying it's outlandish to say all clowns will reach that size so you better not dare put them in anything under a 100 gallon tank.
Royal plecos are also very slow growers. Mine grows at such a slow pace that it's almost impossible to tell he's getting bigger.
Bala sharks, unfortunately, get one of the rawest deals in the aquarium market. They are sold as frequently as cory cats, and their 2" size at which they are purchased is misleading. They are not suitable for small tanks unless it is a very temporary home, let's say three months absolute max. Due to their popularity, they are sentenced to permanent ten gallon homes by the thousands every day.
Then there are those who, like me, originally placed their balas in ten gallons and upgraded within a month of purchase. Let's say they put their one, two, or three balas in a 55 gallon tank. No way, many hobbyist "gurus" say. Bala sharks can get to 14" and they must be in schools. 100 tank is the absolute minimum.
You just can't win with the balas. If you're a member of an online aquarist forum, you'll find you have to keep your bala ownership in the closet along with those flashy Hawaiian shirts and bolo ties from the eighties. Balas just don't get any middle ground, which is a tragedy. They are great fish. They look like miniature sharks, their bright silver color is striking and beautiful, and some get to know their owners and eat from their hands, same as many cichlids.
Ok, enough on balas. Let's move on to one of my favorite fish, the black ghost knife.
These guys are truly amazing. You really have to see one and understand how they move to know what I mean. They are raven black with a white stripe along their back and a little white bowtie beneath their heads. They are shaped like an eel and move by one single undulating fin which stretches from their gills to their black and white striped tail. They hover around the tank and swim sideways and upside-down, sometimes at dizzying speeds. They are nearly blind and navigate with an electrical sensor that helps them find food.
I have never heard of a black ghost knife reaching its alleged 20" in the home aquarium. I would love to hear from any black ghost knife owner who has kept this fish for years and knows more about them. Unfortunately, not much is out there in regards to their care and growth rate. I bought mine at 5", and it's about at 8" now. I feed it earthworms, the occasional ghost shrimp, and it also devours anything else that goes in the tank--flakes, pellets, bloodworms, etc. My BGK is as much of a pig as clown loaches, and it is one of the most active fish in the tank.
Here is what I do know about these amazing fish.
They hail from the Amazon and the rivers of Paraguay. They are all wild caught, and breeding them is still a mystery. They must be kept by themselves due to aggression among their species, and they cannot be kept with other electrical fish like elephant noses. You must have a cave so the fish can hide away from the light. They are generally peaceful but will eat smaller fish when they grow larger. Do not house them with nippy or aggressive fish.
Because I can't accurately tell you their full size, a 55 gallon tank is the absolute minimum for permanent housing. I'm sure you can safely keep one in a 29 gallon for a while, though.
The black ghost knife is another fish the gurus frown upon unless you live in a warehouse and have multiple 100 and 200 gallon systems. As you might have guessed, I don't have much love for those aquarists who intimidate or try to shame people who keep fish in tanks that they regard substandard, "inhumane," or whatever else is their put-down word of the week.
Please don't take my words the wrong way and go out and buy an oscar and stuff him in a ten gallon. That's not what I'm saying at all. What I am saying is do your research and learn about your fish, and make an educated decision. In the end, it's your tank, and you can do whatever you want with it.
And don't be put off by fish that get too large for your system!
As long as your aquarium will not stunt the animal and is within reasonable size for their growth, feel free to buy one or a couple of the fish you've always wanted. So many gurus preach about how irresponsible this is, how once you have a fish you can never pass it on. Again, I call them out. You have a number of ways you can pass a fish on when it outgrows your tank.
Wow, have I gotten off the beaten track far enough yet? This article was about my 55 gallon tank, right?
Now I'd like to tell you the story of setting this baby up and all the trials I suffered due to my love of fish.
I bought a 55 gallon kit and stand from Wal-mart. I had shopped around, and this was by far the best deal. The runner-up was a 46 gallon bowfront with wooden stand at Superpetz. This would have run me nearly $400 once I bought the filters, heater, substrate, etc, plus tax. I went with the Wal-mart brand because it was roughly $200 for a larger tank with all the trimmings--filter, heater, etc.
I examined the tank briefly in the car to be sure the filter and everything was there. I also gave the glass a cursory look for cracks. Finding everything seemingly in order, we went home where Leah, my fiancee, started to construct the durable stand. I pulled the massive tank out of the cardboard and then I saw it.
A small piece of paper I had missed before read, "Do not fill with water if center brace is cracked."
And low and behold, that sucker was fractured right down the middle. If I had been a fool and filled the tank with water, the aquarium would have bowed along the front and back, stretching out not unlike a rubbermaid container filled with water for several weeks. Eventually it would have leaked, or totally fractured.
I promptly called the number on the piece of paper. The writing instructed me not to return the tank but to call the company first. They were closed, of course, so I had to call them the following morning.
In summary, their terse and slightly rude response was to take the tank back to Wal-mart and exchange it. They seemed amazed that I had even called them to begin with; I guess you're only supposed to call that number if the complimentary fish food spilled or your single-serving packet of dechlorinator wasn't included.
I'd been burned once already so I called Wal-mart first before treking over there and swapping out systems. I was told I had bought their last tank and that they were not expecting in a new shipment until two weeks.
Determined to set up my tank, I was undaunted. I called another Wal-mart a little further away and they did indeed have several 55 gallon tanks, and they were willing to exchange mine.
We made the exchange, I checked the empty system thoroughly in the car, and then we drove home... just as the rains were beginning.
I had chosen a half n' half mixture of black and play sand for my substrate. At the time, we had some nasty little dogs living in our backyard that we shared with a couple dolt girls, and this made the hose and faucet out back impossible to get to. So what I did instead was mix and clean the sand in a 5 gallon bucket in our kitchen sink.
This was a huge ordeal because you have to dump out the excess floating sand, and you can't just pour all that down the drain. For every fill, I had to go outside in the pouring rain and dump out the sandy water. I did about 8 buckets, with 5 rotations of water each.
Finally the substrate was in. I filled the tank with water, and when it was full, I took a step back to revel my work.
First thing I noticed was the water was so cloudy I could barely see the lights penetrating through the murk. Second thing I noticed was the 3 mm thick black swampy mess of floating black sand on the surface. Third and final thing was the difference of water levels at the two ends: the end facing the wall was flush with the hood, and the one near the kitchen entryway was an inch below the top.
Naturally, I went into denial and accepted this as something I would have to live with. I pushed the nagging thoughts of leakage or fracture to the back of my head and tried to tell myself it would be ok. Leah had worked for a local eccentric named "Charlie" who cared for about 78,000 aquatic turtles, and I remember his tanks were always a little askew. He had no leaks, right? At least he hadn't had any while I was there.
As it was getting pretty late and we were both tired, we went to bed. Meanwhile, the rain pounded harder. I lay there, trying to tell myself that I'd deal with it tomorrow. All the while visions flooded before me: a small leak, a rupture, an explosive fracture that would cover our entire place in a foot of water, due to the uneven placement of water and too much pressure on one end. Finally, I got out of bed and emptied the tank down to one inch about the nasty sand substrate. I did all this in the driving rain, throwing out bucket after bucket like so many novelty firemen.
I was at a loss. But at least I could sleep without fearing waking up to a wet carpet in the morning.
Next day I got online and found Myfishtank.net, a forum I frequent to this day. I posted my problem and almost immediately got the answer. I would have to shim the stand with a wood block on the bad end, and I would need corkboard or something soft to place beneath the tank in case the stand's surface buckled.
I used exactly three decks of playing cards to get the water level. I took a measurement of the card stack, added an extra 8th of an inch for sagging carpet, malability of wood, barometric pressure, whatever, then went off to Lowe's to buy the wood and a corkboard base.
Found the wood just fine. As for the corkboard... I asked at least three salespeople, and they all looked at me as if I were in full Roman centurion armor. Two of them didn't even know what corkboard was, and the third said they definitely did not sell it.
I went home, called the other Lowe's. This one almost laughed at me when I asked for corkboard.
I then called Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Home Depot, and four different lumberyards and wood specialty stores. None of them had corkboard.
Since I'm not the handiest man in existence, I began to wonder whether corkboard existed, or if I had imagined all those schoolroom bulletin boards of old. Finally, I looked around for an alternative online and found polystyrene.
Meanwhile, the rain is still coming. It's beginning to really annoy me, but I have no idea what is really going on...
I get the polystyrene from Lowe's and just barely fit half the enormous $6 sheet in my car. I get home, Leah and I shove the polystyrene under the tank, test the water level once again, and finally get the bastard level.
For the last five or six hundred words I've been talking about rain. Now here's where the rain enters our little tale...
Turns out the remnant of Hurricane Ivan was ripping through western North Carolina. The rains ended up flooding out anything that was 16 feet above the banks of the French Broad river, devastating the city of Asheville. And our water supply. Though this was discreetly kept from the tourists, we learned the waterlines had been contaminated by the rising water and there was dangerous bacteria in the system.
To make this natural disaster a short story, we were out of water for about 5 or 6 days.
When the water was safe and running again, I filled up the tank for the second time. The water was nightmarishly cloudy. I foolishly turned on the filters, which helped settle the sand, but was very bad for the impellors and motors. I had to turn off both of them and thoroughly clean them out.
The sand settled three days later and I introduced some guppies for cycling. As of the time of this article's writing, one of those guppies is still with me, a lemon colored female. A few days later I added my largest bala shark because my small one had developed a fungus around its mouth.
All went well for about two days. Then one morning I woke up and the living room had a strange smell.
The sand had not been cleaned out well enough, and it was also too deep. Pockets of anaerobic bacteria had formed, releasing deadly hydrogen sulfide gas, bad for people and fish. I looked everywhere online, trying to find a solution. I quickly made up my mind that no matter what, I would not tear down this tank a third time.
But that's exactly what I ended up doing, in the end.
It took me a whole day to siphon off all the water, and then use a cut-up plastic 1 gallon water jug to take out the rest. I then spent two more hours getting rid of the sand. I used 2 water jugs, a spoon, my hands, and two rolls of paper towels.
But I got it all.
I then poured in my cleaned black and white gravel substrate, keeping it only an inch thick at its deepest back part. I placed my plants and caves and driftwood, and then I filled the tank with water.
Finally, it was level. There was no more anaerobic bacteria. The filters were working fine. And it was ready for some fish to begin the nitrogen cycle.
Well, I hope you enjoyed that story. Learn from my mistakes and save yourself a lot of time, a lot of stress, and a whole lot of water.
We moved from our Asheville apartment in July 2006 and now reside in a 3 bedroom home with a finished basement.
The 55 gallon tank and stand was moved the Monday following the moving of all our furniture. Click here to read about the move itself.
I lost all discus a few months prior to the move. The little blue snakeskin had wasted away and I foolishly replaced him with a mated pair I snagged for $40. I changed 25% of the water three times a week and was successful in keeping nitrates under 20.
Unfortunately, the discus withered away one at a time.
Though I managed to keep my water parameters acceptable, my experience shows that three is not a good number for discus. Despite what you may have heard, keeping a single discus is not dooming it to stress and death. I kept a single discus for 8 months with absolutely no problems.
To read more about what happened click here.
I do not plan to keep discus again. They are too expensive and too difficult to keep happy. There are cooler fish on the market that are a fraction of the discus price tag and are much easier to keep.
Take clown loaches, for example. I visited a great fish store in Gastonia, NC called Wet Pets and picked up two very active and healthy (and good sized) clown loaches. I placed them in my puffer tank to Q them in the chance they'd come down with ich, but the puffer would not leave them alone so I was forced to immediately introduce them into the 55 gallon.
It's great having loaches again. I'd forgotten what wonderful fish they are.
Anyway, the 55 gallon is in our dining room on the main floor. Sunlight may become a problem as direct sunshine reaches one side of the tank for almost an hour during sunset. I may add car window tinting to this side if algae starts to become a problem.