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Planted Aquarium Basics: How to Set Up a Planted Tank

I love maintaining my aquarium and I enjoy giving tips to others.

Extremely easy-to-maintain aquascapes.

Extremely easy-to-maintain aquascapes.

The Basics of a Planted Aquarium Setup

Planted aquariums are living works of art. Plants remove nitrates and phosphates and help to improve water quality between water changes in an aquarium. Planted tanks are not difficult or expensive to set up, either; in fact, the easiest type to create and maintain is a medium-tech design. Planted tanks can be developed from currently existing tanks with very few add-ons, and they are not any more demanding to maintain.

What most planted-tank owners do a few hours a day really isn't maintenance (these tanks are easy to set up and keep). Most owners just stare at their tank, appreciating it and contemplating what to do next.

This is a basic installation outline to help beginners succeed with their first attempt. In this order, I will cover the following:

Tips for Setting Up a Planted Aquarium

  1. Tank Selection
  2. Substrate
  3. Thermometer
  4. Water
  5. Filters
  6. Bacteria
  7. Heaters
  8. Cooling
  9. Light
  10. Aeration
  11. Hard-Scape
  12. Planting
  13. Carbon Dioxide
  14. Fertilizer
  15. Animals
  16. Common Misconceptions

Setting up a planted aquarium is not difficult if you are provided with good information.

1. Tank Selection

How to set up a planted tank begins with the tank itself. Tanks come in many shapes and sizes. The most common shape is the rectangular cube. When selecting a tank, bigger is better. Having room to grow is very important. Your plants will grow along with your interest.

I suggest starting with around 55 gallons. Bigger tanks are easier to maintain than smaller tanks because the bio-load is more dispersed. 55-gallon tanks are available at almost every pet store. Petco has a couple of 1 dollar per gallon sales every year, making them inexpensive. Accidents aren't as fatal when there is plenty of water for them to happen in. Your stocking options will increase dramatically with a larger tank.

2. Substrate

Substrate is important. A good substrate is the foundation of a thriving aquarium. A mixture of rocks, sand, smooth gravel, and aquarium planting medium will give the best results.

Step-by-Step Instructions for Adding Substrate

  1. Rinse: First rinse the substrates before adding them to your tank. The water should run clean. If you don't thoroughly rinse substrates your aquarium water will become cloudy. It will eventually settle, but when it is disturbed by animals and water changes, it will turn cloudy again. This dust cloud can clog filters and isn't very pretty. If rocks are collected from outside they may have unwanted residues and bacteria.
  2. Bag the planting medium: Place the aquarium planting medium in mesh bags and tie closed with fishing line or undyed polyester tread. This keeps it together at the very bottom of your substrate. Aquarium planting medium is usually clay beads, not always a desirable appearance. It holds nutrients for slow release directly to the roots, with preference to extensively rooting plants. This is also a good time to insert a fertilizing root tab into the middle of the bag.
  3. Place rocks: Add the rocks into the tank, creating barriers to hold the other substrates in a slope. Creating rock retaining walls, allows the substrate to settle highest in back and lowering as it approaches the front. It is a good idea to plan an off-center area with less substrate, like a valley. Think, two mounds at either end sloping to the back of the aquarium, held in place with rocks act as retaining walls.
  4. Place the bagged medium: Fill the area behind the rock retaining walls about half full with the bagged planting media. This were your deepest substrate will be. Plan to place plants with large root structures in deep substrate, because they gather more nutrients from the substrate instead of the water itself.
  5. Add gravel: Next add the smooth gravel making it level with the top of the rock retaining walls; some will leak through the cracks, that’s OK. The gravel goes under the sand helping the retaining walls to be more effective. As time goes on more gravel will mix with the sand on the surface.
  6. Add sand: Finally add sand. Initially cover the entire bottom, and then add more to the mounds. Again create a slope, rising to the back of the tank with a valley in the middle. The valley doesn’t have to slope, and it is better if it doesn't. If you want to absolutely prevent gravel and sand from leaking between the cracks in the rocks, use cut up pieces of Tupperware or other non-biodegradable plastics, behind the rocks (probably won't work).

3. Thermometer

A thermometer is a critical piece of equipment. A thermometer will tell you when your heater is not working correctly, or when the water gets too hot from a hot day. One that floats or is suction cupped to the inside of the tank is preferred. The tape like, stick on the side, type is less accurate and can’t be removed to test water before it is added.

4. Water

All water is not the same. Only deionized water is close to pure H2O. Once it’s in your tank even that's impure. Water testing must be done. Tap water is what most people use for their aquarium. It must be treated. There are a few different methods of treatment: deionizing, sitting, and chemical detoxification.

pH

pH is the most important. Pure H2O has a pH of 7.2. A pH of 7 is considered neutral. Aquarium water should not vary more than .2 between weekly water changes. Consistency is more important than its level. Some plants and fish like acidic water around 6.5, some like more basic water around 8.2, most like their water in the middle. Fish and plants commonly found in aquariums are hardy and will adapt. There are some that won't, like Discus fish.

Again, it is more important to have a consistent pH that is sometimes perfect. Acids will lower the pH and bases will raise the pH. If you find the need to adjust the pH add weak acids a little at a time until you overcome the buffers (alkalinity), then a little bit will make drastic changes. Be careful! If you add too much the acid can burn the occupants. This could happen before the pH changes if you have very high alkalinity.

Ammonia

Ammonia is pure fish waste. This should be kept at undetectable levels. This can be accomplished with adequate filtration and a healthy colony of bacteria.

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Nitrite (NO2)

Nitrite is the first breakdown of Ammonia. This should be kept to a minimum. Filtration and bacteria will do this.

Nitrate (NO3)

Nitrate is the final breakdown of Ammonia. This is plant food. There needs to be some but not much. Levels of less than 2 parts per million (ppm) are ideal. Levels can exceed this but increased algae growth will result. If levels get way to high, it can cause stress and even death to fish. The fish will be fine with levels less than 7 ppm, but many plants will get covered in algae preventing photosynthesis. To reduce nitrates do regular water changes, do not overstock animal life, and have plenty of plant life will help keep the levels lower between water changes.

Phosphate (PO3)

Phosphates are another animal waste but not nearly as toxic. Their levels don’t usually have to be tested. Phosphates are also plant food. Doing regular weekly water changes should keep phosphates levels down.

Hardness

Water hardness is the total level of metal ions. When salts dissolve in water (electrolytes) one part will be metal and another will be nonmetal. Sodium Chloride is table salt, when it dissolves in water it breaks apart into a sodium ion and a chlorine ion. Sodium is metal and Chlorine is nonmetal. There are more types of salt than table salt, but all salts that dissolve in water are electrolytes. Hard water in a planted aquarium is generally a good thing unless it's in excess. The hardness of normal tap water is fine. Hard water usually has a high pH.

Alkalinity

Alkalinity is the level of pH buffers. pH buffers prevent fluctuations of pH. Alkalinity is closely related to your water hardness. It is measured in two ways, gH and kH. gH is the total effect of pH buffers and kH is the carbonate level. When aquarists discuss alkalinity, gH concerns animals and kH concerns plants.

Salinity

Salinity is a measure of the amount of salt. Plants and animals that live in brackish waters are adapted to higher amounts of salt than freshwater fish. Most tropical fish are native to soft acidic waters with very little salt. The amount of salt in tap water is a lot more than the waters of their ancestors. People will add salt because they believe it will help with the fish's overall health. This is only true if it's native to waters harder than your tap water. Salinity is rarely discussed between planted tank hobbyists because it is water hardness in excess. Salinity is critical in marine aquariums.

Dissolved Minerals

If you’re using tap water you don't have to test for the exact dissolved minerals more than once. Unless you move, they generally stay the same. What type and how much, fertilizers you use will depend on, what's already in your water and the plants you are stocking.

Deionize

Deionizing is where the dissolved substances are physically removed from the water making nearly pure H2O. When using deionized water electrolytes must be mixed into the water before it is added to your aquarium. It has a pH of 7.2 but will change to very acidic quickly because there are no chemical buffers to prevent its rapid change. Carbonate ions are the main chemical buffer and the levels are known as kH, other substances also cause a buffer, but generally raise the pH further. Collectively all buffering substance levels are known as gH. When aquarium hobbyists discuss alkalinity, people more concerned with animals will refer to gH and people concerned with plants will refer to kH.

Sitting

Sitting water means that you allowed it to sit in a bucket for a day or 2. This allows the breath out chlorine. Almost all tap water is treated with chlorine. It is highly toxic to all living things. If your water is treated with fluorine, it is even more critical that it is removed. Fluorine is more reactive than chlorine but behaves very similarly. They are both gases on the periodic same column.

Detoxify

Chemically detoxifying water means that you added salts that react with heavy metals and chlorine/fluorine. They will make a precipitate (PPT) that will not dissolve in water. The PPT is in such small amounts that you cannot see it. This makes the water safe for fish and plants because these dangerous substances are no longer active.

Temperature

Before adding the water it should be nearly the same temperature as the water in the tank already. Test it with a thermometer.

Add Water

Add water slowly over the valley, for more complex substrate arrangements use a plate. If using tap water write down the results of the chlorine and chloramine test before adding a detoxifier. Then add the detoxifier and write down the results for hardness, alkalinity, pH, nitrites, nitrates, phosphates, and all the other tests you choose to do. This will act as a baseline. It will tell you what you’re adding to your aquarium.

5. Filters

Install the filter and begin cycling the tank. There are many types of filters. Canisters are the best but HOBs are the most common. If you have under-gravel filter replace it. Fillers are rated by how fast they pump water, not how much filter media they have. Do some math and multiply the gallons of your tank by 5. The filter should pump all the water in your tank 3-7 times an hour. Because filters are rated by pump size instead of filter media, filter quality is extremely variable.

Find the filter that's rated for your aquarium with the most filter media (stuff that the water runs through). There is no such thing as over-filtering, but you can easily under the filter. Overrate your filtration system, 150% should work well. Even though you cannot overdo the filter you can have too much current. This will depend on your plants and fish. If anything struggles with the current turn it down or put a sponge over the intake.

Aquaclear makes the best HOBs because they have the patent on a simple design for the best filtration action. The current can be adjusted, lots of media, run smoothly, easy to clean, only the carbon has to be replaced so you can keep the bacteria colony when you clean it, all the water passes through the media, and their middle of the road price makes this the best HOB period. You can pay more for other HOBs but they will not work as well and anything cheaper isn't worth your money. I don't sell filters it's just a simple fact.

6. Bacteria

Add a bacteria culture to jump start the nitrogen cycle. There are two types of bacteria that need to be added; one to covert ammonia into nitrite, and another to convert nitrite into nitrate. Fish should not be added until the bacteria have successfully colonized. This will happen in about a week.

A filters main purpose is not to remove anything from the water; instead it provides a place for these beneficial bacteria to flourish. The bacteria will break down ammonia into nitrite then into nitrate. Ammonia is extremely toxic to your plants and animals, nitrite is less toxic to your animals, and nitrate is the least.

When you’re doing your weekly water changes, you are lowering the nitrate levels by diluting the old water with new water. Plants in your tank will feed on the nitrate and this includes algae. The nitrate levels should be kept beneath 2 parts per million, higher levels are acceptable but more algae will grow.

Having plants in your fish tank will not alter the need for weekly water changes, but they will improve water quality between changes.

7. Heaters

Add heater(s) at the back of the aquarium. Most heaters are rated with the assumption that room temperature does not drop below 65 degrees Fahrenheit. If room temperature might drop below 65 degrees then you should install additional heaters.

The first one(s) should be set at 78 degrees because this is the optimum growing temperature of most aquatic plants and tolerable by almost all. The backup, in case room temperature falls below 65 degrees, should be set at 74 degrees. In the event that your first heater or set of heaters is incapable of maintaining aquarium temperature, the backups will turn on before any stress is caused to fish or plants. If you are using a fully submersible heater install it lengthwise just above the substrate at least an inch or two.

8. Cooling

If your tank gets too hot, the plants and animals will suffer. Higher temperatures make gases, like O2 and CO2, less soluble in water. Fluctuations of temperature are also harmful. If the room gets hot, or the light heats the tank, there are ways of cooling the water.

Vent

Opening the lid can cool the water, by letting heat created from the lights to escape. The lights could be run for shorter amounts of time during the day.

Fan

A fan can be used to cool the water, by placing it so that it blows across the surface of the water. This creates a breeze. This breeze will encourage evaporation, cooling the water.

Ice

A frozen bottle of water can be floated inside your tank. Realize that this creates rapid cooling and should be monitored. Make sure the heaters are working before you place ice in the tank. Do not place ice cubes in the water. Ice cubes will melt too quickly and cool to fast. You want the ice to last at least a couple of hours, so a frozen bottle works best. As the ice melts it turns to water that will insulate the remaining ice; the ice will melt slower.

Cooling Units

Cooling units can be used. They work like a mini air conditioner for your water. They are expensive but are very low maintenance.

9. Light

Next add light. Many light fixtures are available coming in different wattages, with a range of light spectrum bulbs. The cheap ones that came in the box with tank packages are usually low light. Low light is enough light to see your fish but not enough to grow most aquatic plants. There are plants that will grow in low light conditions.

Your planting options increase with the amount of light. The general rule of thumb is that 1 watt per gallon is low light, 2-3 watts per gallon is medium light, and 3-5 watts per gallon is heavy light. This rule of thumb is with the assumption you are using fluorescent lights. For best results use heavy light, these fixtures are available for coral aquariums. The spectrum of light that you use is also an important factor. Plants mainly use a color of light that is not produced in most bulbs. It is very advisable to use a timer for the lights so that a regular day/night cycle can be established.

Types of Fixtures

LED fixtures are the best for most aquariums. LED fixtures with enough light output are expensive.

T-5 fluorescent lighting is generally preferred because of their: skinny bulbs, narrow footprint, availability, efficiency, low heat output, and they are don't cost much more than other fluorescents. T-8 fluorescents are also commonly available. T-12 fluorescents are large, less efficient, and it's difficult to find antic blue bulbs for them.

CFL or compact fluorescents are great. Their small size allows for easy placement in small places. CFL fluorescent bulbs come in many socket types and need to have ballasts. Most have a ballast at their base.

If your fixture came with incandescent bulbs replace them with CFLs. Then give more light by placing desk lamps with more CFLs around the sides of your tank. Incandescents are a dead giveaway that you do not have more than 1 watt per gallon.

Halogen lights emit a lot light for their size. Halogens are typically used for very large aquariums and produce a lot of heat.

If you plan on having a tank the size of a public swimming pool you should look into plasma lighting. Plasmas should not be used for tanks that are anything less than huge.

Light Spectrum

Light spectrum is important. Mix 50% antic blue light with 50% daylight or soft white. Antic blue is the color that plants thrive on. They will grow faster, bushier, and much healthier. Most bulbs are designed to emit nearly invisible light.

Antic blue is a hole in our vision and is where most plant photosynthesis occurs. Daylight bulbs emit more red light which will bring out the red in fish and plants. Without red light most plants will not flower. With red light plants will grow stringer and algae will be a slightly larger problem. In soft white bulbs red colors are dulled: plants will grow bushier, and algae growth will be stunted.

Timer

Timers are cheap and well worth the time of going to the store. A simple security timer can be used and these are available at most hardware stores. Having a regular day/night cycle is difficult to establish if you are relying on manually turning the lights on and off. Plants need a day to conduct photosynthesis and a night to recharge for the next day’s growing.

A regular cycle of less than 14 hours on and at least 10 hours off, at the same time every day, will promote plant growth. This can be adjusted to your schedule. When you wake up for your morning coffee, the lights go on. When you should start getting ready for bed, they turn off.

Here's a lovely planted tank.

Here's a lovely planted tank.

10. Aeration

Plants need oxygen at night when the lights are off. They absorb oxygen though their roots. Plants release oxygen though their roots during the day and absorb it at night. Aeration isn't necessary for aquatic plant growth but will promote it. The aeration will help maintain the health of fish and invertebrates by supplementing the filter and plants.

Use an aeration pump that is over rated for you aquarium. The only way to over aerate is to turn the water to foam. This will not happen easily. CO2 will displace dissolved oxygen (O2) in the water, so having an oxygen rich environment will not reduce CO2 levels.

Place a check valve between a T splitter and the pump to prevent siphoning. The T splitter will direct the air in two directions. Place an air stone at the end of each line after the T valve.

Install the airstones just beneath the substrate on both mounds. It is best to run the lines inside your tank up the back corners, making them easily concealable.

11. Hard-Scape

Now add your hard-scape. Hard-scape consists of wood, large rocks, and large pieces of décor. Most professional planted aquarium designers use natural looking hard-scapes. Using things that are obviously man made breaks the illusion of a fish world. Things that are painted should be avoided. For best results use real rocks, and real bog or root wood.

Rocks

If collecting rocks from outside choose smooth rocks and collect from the same 5 foot radius. It will look more natural. Rocks collected from sharp bends in a river will have more variation, while rocks collected from a lake shore will be more uniform. A good test to perform, that ensures that volcanic rocks aren't going to kill your fish and plants, is to use a few drops of vinegar. If the vinegar bubbles on contact with the rock, the rock has a high pH. If nothing happens then the rock is safe.