Using vine tree wood in a tank

by George J. Reclos

To start with, we made a plan of the tank in scale and made some calculations to estimate which would be the “ideal” length of wood we needed for this tank. We could leave it at the size it was originally cut to but the pieces were quite long (between 150 and 200 cm) which made them extremely difficult to handle. Their positioning would not be accurate because of their natural curves and branches while attaching plants to a 200 mm wood and then transferring it in the tank was really too much. On top of that the containers we had for curing them were 100 and 120 cm high (see photo below). Therefore we decided to cut half of them in 80 - 100 cm pieces, and the other half in 120 - 160 cm pieces. After that we put them all together in the two plastic containers which had been cleaned previously and disinfected.


The two containers with the vine tree pieces already placed in them.

Cement rings were used to keep the wood from floating.

The containers were filled with water. Water was changed after 24 hours and the containers were refilled.

Each of those plastic containers will hold more than 300 liters of water and are resistant to any chemical (they are actually used in the pharmaceutical industry to carry raw materials). Pieces of cement were used to keep all the pieces submersed during the whole process. The treatment would be done with some chemicals which were carefully chosen according to the following criteria:

1. They should be completely soluble so they could be removed after the last stage of the treatment with repeated baths of the wood in cold and then hot water. Preferably, they should decompose by themselves after a short time (unfortunately, very few chemicals work that way).

2. Moreover, if a small quantity of the chemical would be absorbed by the wood and was to be subsequently released slowly in the water, this should be no toxic and preferably not harmful or even stressing to the fish. This limited the range of chemicals we could use a lot.

3. Just killing the microorganims, eggs of various worms and parasites etc., was not enough since I wouldn't like to have some decomposing worms in my tank afterwards. So, the chemicals should first kill and then disintegrate the killed organisms as quickly as possible. Therefore the chemicals should create an extremely hostile environment in which almost no organism could live and preferably act directly on proteins and carbohydrates so everything would leach in the water of the container. Apart from the various organisms, the  humoral contents of the wood itself should be dissolved and decomposed. Vine wood has a high porocity which is a good thing when treating it but also has a large content of various liquids which would better be removed beforehand.

4. The various agents should work in different and - if possible - complementary ways. Thus the first one should increase the pH, the second would be a very potent corrosive agent directly decomposing (actually denaturating) all proteins including RNA and DNA, the third should be an antimicrobial agent and the fourth should be a very potent oxidizing agent. Since the chemicals would act one directly after the other, there would be absolutely no chance for any living creature in there to have the time to adapt to the situation, since the situation would be changing from one extreme to the other.

Adding sodium bicarbonate. Three Kg were added per container.

The first additive was NaHCO3. The pieces were left in water oversaturated with NaHCO3 for two weeks (pH = 8.5). Three kilograms (six pounds) of sodium bicarbonate were added per vessel. Following that, we changed the water and then we added NaOH pellets, till pH = 13.5 and left them for one more week. The pellets (almost 2 Kg of them) were added slowly in 250 gr portions since the dissolution of NaOH is an exothermal reaction and we wouldn't like any plastics to melt. When we got there to make the second water change, the odor was really unbelievable. After changing the water, we decided to repeat this stage and added 1 more Kg of NaOH in the containers. Caution: NaOH is a very powerful corrosive agent - please use gloves when using it. In case it drops on your skin do not panic. Just rinse it with a lot of water.

Sodium hydroxide was added next.

All the snails, insects and most living organisms had died and partially or totally decomposed. Instead of one we performed three water changes and then went to step 3 which was the addition of an anti-fungal agent (namely Algizin which is a product from Waterlife meant for ponds). As you know, overdosing is my best moment and this time sky was really the limit. We used this agent at a concentration of  1000 x the recommended dose and left it there to soak for three days.

Just to be on the safe side. Fish life is precious.

This time there was almost no odor and the water was clear. The wood looked a little bit blue colored but much more clear. We performed two water changes and then added the same medication once again at 500 X the recommended dose. The wood pieces were left in there for another three days.

At the end of this time, we changed water for three more times and then added a generous quantity of Hydrogen peroxide which would oxidize any residual organic matter still on or in the wood pieces. The initial concentration of hydrogen peroxide in the vessels was over 3%. Two days were more than enough since hydrogen peroxide is not very stable and will leave the water quickly. The very low temperatures at that time (less than 6 C at noon)  probably kept it longer in the container but two days is more than enough.

The pieces were rinsed in water and then transferred in our bathroom where they were placed in very hot water for two hours. This procedure was repeated two more times, each time for two hours, till no more brown color was seen in the water. While waiting, we scrubbed the vine wood and removed small wood particles loosely attached to the wood or anything that would be obviously removed by the fish.

Waiting for the wood pieces to release any soluble contents.

The vine wood is now ready to be used. For security reasons, a piece of this wood was added in my 45 liter tank with 5 Xiphophorus variatus and an LDA026 catfish for 4 weeks without any water changes while the fishes were closely observed for any sign that would indicate a possible leach from the vine wood. To make sure that there was nothing that would harm the plants, two Anubia plants were attached to the wood and photos were taken on day 0 in order to allow a comparison at a later date.

After this, the big pieces of vine wood were brought on the table and tied together with fishing line, while a stone was also tied in the complex to keep them completely submersed in the tank. The wood was kept in the main tank for one more month before any plants were attached to it. All fishes were still closely inspected looking for any signs indicating that something was wrong.

Stones were used to keep the vine tree wood submersed

One year later everything seems to be OK in the tank while most of the "skin" of the wood has been eaten by the group of Panaque nigrolineatus which spend almost all their day on it - completely ignoring the huge bogwood pieces in the tank. The vine tree wood looks like a bogwood now in most places. It is really unique in appearance and its curved shape and number of branches offer a lot of space for creative aquascaping. On top of that, despite the cost of those chemicals (not exactly negligible) we managed to prepare more than 50 Kg of ready to use wood which came at almost half the price as compared to bogwood of the same overall weight. If larger containers are used and the chemicals purchased are not of "analytical" grade the cost can be reduced by at least 60% which makes it a really economic solution. Arranging with fellow hobbyists to treat a large number of vine tree wood together and then share the "cured" pieces is also a good practice to reduce time, cost and labor. The overall result is definitely pleasing (see photo here)

Of course, stating that this is a safe and efficient way to treat the vine tree wood is a bit premature. The question of long term efficacy and safety is a really important issue but answers are really hard to get. This is not only valid for our "cured" vine tree wood but for most remedies and treatments in the hobby - especially empirical ones. The fact that a quite large piece of wood in a 50 liter tank hasn't caused any problems till now despite the fact that we deliberately left this tank without any water changes for a month (at the early stages of this experiments and prior to the addition of the vine tree wood in the large tank) point to this direction. I don't know at which time point efficacy is guaranteed so I will only propose this specific wood treatment on the understanding that it is to be used "at your own risk". If any symptoms of rotting or other undesirable effects are noticed in the future, an update of this article will be ready for you. Meanwhile, I would really be grateful for any feedback from your own tanks - if you decide to give it a try. 

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