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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Okay so I just moved and broke down my terrarium almost all the way except I left the clay background on and took some of the plants out. Now its putting off this funky smell. I also have a waterfall made out of cement. Anyone else have this problem with there tanks smelling after a while. Does the foam and cocoa fiber background smell ever? If they don't I think i might just re-due it in foam instead of clay.
 

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I have used the lazy-man's approach to terrarium building for some time which in my case consists of gravel or expanded clay pellets, screen, and then soil with no real access point for removing water that inevitably builds up over time. After the "drainage layer" starts to fill up and the tank gets swampy. When I remove water with a turkey baster, it stinks pretty bad.

In my case I attribute it to the natural breakdown of organic materials--I tend to pack my soil full of sphagnum moss, dead plants, etc in an excessively moist environment. The tank as a whole doesn't smell at all, but once you dig to the lower layers of the substrate and particularly the water, it does very much so.

Mine is a very organic smell though--is yours like a chemical smell or like the above?
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
It's not a chemical smell definitely what you described. So should I just rip out the old stuff then abd replace it with new since I've disturbed the old stuff. I'm just afraid the smell won't go away even if I replant it and get up and running again.
 

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When I siphon out water I basically remove a section of earth about the size of a quarter, stick the tube down there and suck out water. Then I cover it back up with that earth. It definitely stinks during the process.

I've gotten so fed up with dealing with it though that I've done exactly what you're suggesting as of the other day, I took out my frogs, took out all the substrate down to the screen and used a wet/dry vacuum to suck out the nasty water. I'm mixing the heavily spring-seeded and nutrient rich soil with some new soil mix after drying a bit, and then replanting the tank, this time with a water escape route provided.

From learning the hard way, I would just recommend figuring out a drain system or else using a false bottom through which you have access to the built up water. That is probably the easiest way to eliminate the stench at this point.
 

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It is correct the smell is the result of the breakdown of organic debris, but it is an anaerobic breakdown. What you are smelling is probably H2S. If your substrate becomes saturated and stays that way or the water under the drainage layer is stagnent then you will get that smell particularly if you disturb it.

It isn't the fault of clay as it can happen to any substrate. If you stay with the clay, the best thing you can do is keep an air gap between the bottom of the clay and the top of the water under the false bottom. This allows the substrate to drain and keeps it from going anaerobic. I have success in plants like bromeliads and ferns rooting through the clay into the water layer as the air gap lets the roots breath. I have my verticles set with a automatic overflow and the water that comes out is never stagnent and I do not get that smell if I dig into the substrate.

Ed
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
yeah i have a waterfall feature that makes it so the water isn't stagnant but since the move i had to break it down all the way pretty much and it has not had any water in it or anything at the bottom. i took all the substrate out and everything but it still smell. im pretty sure its the clay from sitting for so long and not having anything going on in the tank and from me not opening it just about every day to feed or mist. I looked at the back of my clay to and i see black behind it and i think that could mold or something so i think im just going to have to re-due the clay or go the foam route since the clay makes the tank so heavy and idk how long we will be in the house we are in now so i should probably build it this time so it more mobile and easier to break down.
 

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If the frogs and substrate and everything are out, you should get rid of all the water, etc first and then leave the tank open to air out. It sucks to be in that room for awhile, but it definitely works.

Glad Ed weighed in on this--I figured someone must have had a more scientific explanation than I do.

Ed--so you're saying that the anaerobic activity which is occuring now is because of full saturation of the soil, drainage layer, etc (and hence no oxygen) and with an aerobic breakdown the gases wouldn't build up so much? Or at all?
 

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You would still end up with a stinky tank. Think of an aquarium with pretty air bubbles helping with water circulation and aeration. Guess what, you still got a stinky tank after a while, especially with no water changes. It's the proteins and organics that break down. It just happens that the microbes that enjoy those things produce stinky by products like ammonia. Develop the best siphon method that works for you. I drill drains in my tanks. I hope that helps.
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
well when the tank was set up and running i didnt have any smell at all. the smell didnt occur till i broke it down. i'm just going to do a false bottom with a styro foam background for easy moving if necessary. the clay background is just way to heavy to move a 36gal tank around with it stuck to the back still. all probably do a re-build thread of what i have planned out for it.
 

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If you're redoing it with a false bottom just make sure you have a good way to access the would-be stinky water. The background is really not of consequence in regard to the smell.

All of us have tanks that are built to last as long as possible--you shouldn't need to build a tank with the idea in mind that you're going to break it down.

I now use false bottoms with an access point in the back corner where I can stick a siphon or wet/dry vac hose in and suck it all out. This also provides a sort of "chimney" so that the air between the water and soil can exchange with the fresh air coming in (in this particular case I'm talking about a pumilio tank, so there is a lot of venting). I think for the time being this has solved my problem, and it's still a super easy (read "lazy-man's") way of building a tank--no permanent plumbing, etc, and a great stuff background built around the access.
 

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Discussion Starter · #11 ·
well the only reason why im building it so its easier to move is because the house we are in isnt permanent so i know i will be moving again. the way i had it set up last was crazy heavy hence why i had to break it down so now im building everything out of foam so that its lighter and all i would have to remove if needed is substrate and water.
 

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Well it sounds like you've got a solution to your problem! Definitely just rebuild in a way that first, fits your needs of moving and second, is easy to drain and maintain.

glad we figured it out--this post has been helpful to me too!
 

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If the frogs and substrate and everything are out, you should get rid of all the water, etc first and then leave the tank open to air out. It sucks to be in that room for awhile, but it definitely works.

Glad Ed weighed in on this--I figured someone must have had a more scientific explanation than I do.

Ed--so you're saying that the anaerobic activity which is occuring now is because of full saturation of the soil, drainage layer, etc (and hence no oxygen) and with an aerobic breakdown the gases wouldn't build up so much? Or at all?
If there isn't enough oxygen then the microbes use alternate metabolic that produce methane and sulphides. The black coloration seen through the glass is not a mold but the result of the bacteria using the iron oxide for a oxygen source.
 

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Discussion Starter · #14 ·
wow thats really interesting Ed. I think any other person would have thought it was mold. good to know that its not! Thanks for all your knowledge. you learn something new everyday i guess! :)
 
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