Forget the Fish --What's Under All That Sand?
By Ken Armke (4-98)

          What would you think gets the most attention when some experienced fishkeeper visits our operation for the first time?
          Nope, not the many rare Tanganyikans—some of which perhaps could not be seen anywhere else in Texas!
          Nope, not the rare Victorians—some of which may now be extinct in their home environs!
          Nope, not even the array of large African community tanks which showcase Keegan’s decorative abilities!
          Believe it or not, it’s the filtration.
          To the dismay of some and the amazement of nearly all, our filtration—except for a small number of sponge filters placed here or there—is 100% undergravel.
          I honestly feel that some of these visitors feel sorry for us.
Untitled Document’t we know that there have been new developments in the hobby…that manufacturers are now producing things like wet/dry filters and cannister filters and sophisticated power filters?
          Except that (thanks to Keegan’s attention and care) all our aquariums are kept quite clean, our use of such a simple, primitive filtration method would probably be even more suspect.
          We were once told that we can’t possibly breed Tanganyikan featherfins with an undergravel filter working!
Since then, no less than 12 different varieties of featherfins have been regularly spawned successfully in our aquariums—with the undergravel filters running full force.
           But what really gets people’s attention are our “undersand” filters.
           “How do you use an undergravel filter in combination with sand?,” we are frequently asked. “I’ve always heard you couldn’t do that.”
           Probably, we can do it precisely because we had never heard you couldn’t! Maybe that’s one of the blessings of being somewhat isolated from the bigger cities.
           I distinctly remember our first experiment with an undersand filter a number of years ago.
Keegan wanted to set up a sand-substrate tank and was quite adamant about it. Being the undergravel filter advocate and (at that time) the aquarium caretaker of the household, I had to improvise.
           Using a pair of pantyhose (I don’t think my spouse, Brenda, ever noticed them missing!), I carefully covered the undergravel filter plate in a 10-gallon tank. Then I dumped in fine sand which Keegan and I had carefully collected from some of the cleanest-looking dunes at South Padre Island.
           I connected my airline tubing to the lift tubes and—voila!—a working undersand filter. Now that doesn’t sound complicated, does it?
           To this original tank we introduced some shells and a favored group of the diminuitive shelldweller, Neolamprologus multifasciatus.
           The little fish seemed quite content for a few days, then died. No warning, no nothing. We came in one morning and every single fish was dead.
           We took down the tank, threw away the sand and went on to more rewarding pursuits. It was some months before we came back to the idea of the undersand filter. After all, we reasoned, the filter itself did work.
           Could it possibly have been contaminated Gulf Coast sand that killed our fish?
           Quite possible!
           Afraid of the possible wrath of the pantyhose keeper of the house, we searched fabric shops for finely meshed synthetic material with which to cover filter plates. Admittedly, we did get a few strange looks from salesladies.
            I cut the fabric to fit each filter plate, using silicone (the food-safe stuff used for other aquarium applications) to adhere the fabric to the filter plate in the manner I wanted.
            To this, we added commercial fine sand which we further cleaned by hand. Then we fitted everything to power heads or an air supply. And, finally, we added fish.
            Happily, everything worked fine. The fish seem to like these tanks as well as we do. And we’ve even been able to grow a fine stand of vallisneria in one of these undersand filter tanks (for the benefit of all those other doubters who say you can't grow plants in a sand substrate!).
           We treat our undersand tanks no differently than our undergravel tanks and some have now been in steady operation for several years without a takedown.
            To those who ask, I say all of this proves two things.
            One—When accompanied by water changes and tank-keeping fundamentals, there are several good filtration systems. We don’t try to convert people to undergravel just because we like it.
            Two—To get a result you want, you sometimes have to innovative. When you want to accomplish something, think of a way to accomplish it—even when you hear others saying it can’t be done!

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