How to setup a low light planted tank
Basic guide on how to set up a low light/low tech aquarium
In this guide I will cover filtration, lighting, substrate, water conditioners and filter media that all work well with low light systems, along with some recommended “cleaning crew” species. I am going to assume that this is your first planted system and will try to keep info as basic and easy to understand as I can.
First thing you will want to do is determine a goal of how you want the system to look at the end of the build. So ask yourself do you want a flooded jungle type scene or just a few plants here and there to bring a more natural feel to the scene? This will determine what type of filter you're going to want assuming you are going to want a fully stocked tank as far as fish go.
Water Conditioners, Fertilizer And Filter Media
Water Conditioners And Fertilizer: There are numerous types and strengths of liquid ferts out there, along with dry ferts (not going to go into detail about the drys in this guide, they are more geared towards higher light tanks). When shopping for a fertilizer keep in mind that plants need 17 different macro and micronutrients with trace elements in balance in order to grow. Ex. if a plant has a whole bunch of lets say iron that isn't necessarily a good thing and can cause the plants more harm than good if other nutrients (including light) is not in balance. Or for example if they are provided all but 3 of the elements they will not grow as again they need balance.
So when shopping for a fertilizer look for a good comprehensive liquid fertilizer (has balance of major micro and macros). This will ensure the plant is getting balanced nutrients and will grow at its full potential with your lighting and your naturally occurring Co2. Personally I use Seachem's Flourish Comprehensive. Another key ingredient to a successful system is the addition of Root tabs. These are little rock type things full of nutrient that all plants (especially the heavy root feeders) and even your faster growing stem plants will love.
As far as water conditioners go you're mainly going to want something that removes/detoxifies chlorine from the water, there are many products to choose from for this. But there is also a product called Prime, another in the Seachem lineup that I personally use. It will dechlor your water along with detoxify any nitrites, nitrates and ammonia that may be in your tap. Also works as a good product to have on hand as it can be used during the nitrogen cycle. I can't say enough good things about this product.
Filter Media: Activated carbon in a filter media of a planted system will remove trace and micro nutrients that the plants require to grow. So when shopping for a filter look for one where u can customize the type of media used. Sponges seem to be a popular choice since they provide both mechanical and biological filtration and they can be washed fairly easy. Some manufacturers also have a cylindrical ceramic type of media - this will also work fine or any type of filter floss.
Lighting is the number one biggest determining factor of a planted aquarium so it is best to pick what is going to work best for your specific system (low light/low tech in this case). With that being said there is not really any specific chart to go buy. But I will list some lighting with standard tank size that should work well paired together.
55 Gallon- Single or Dual T8 Fixture going the length of the aquarium
30 Gallon- Single T8 Fixture or Dual Spiral Compact Flourecents
20 Gallon- Same as 30 Gallon
10 Gallon- Single T8 fixture or Single Spiral Compact Flourecent
Now any old bulb will work, however all light bulbs have a K (Kelvin) rating associated with them, this describes what color temperature is output by the bulb. This should be taken into consideration as plants respond best to reds and blues and then the greens lastly. A typical GE bulb will rate somewhere around 3K which will work however plants respond best to the 6k-7.5k range. anything over that and its pretty much overkill and most of the light is being reflected from the plants rather than absorbed. Personally I try to stay in the 6.7K range in all of my systems as this shows the true color of the fish and plants without any distortion and really makes the colors pop at the same time.
Filtration: Just to clear the air it is true that a heavily planted system can support fish with absolutely no filtration at all, however I have always used at least some type of filtration with every planted system I have, whether it be a lightly planted system to a jungle type system.
There are a few different types of filtration to choose from, however just remember to have circulation through the entire tank with as few dead spots as possible to ensure the nutrient in the water is getting around to all of the plants. Keep in mind I'm not talking about tsunami force current here just to where there is water movement through the entire tank as best you can manage.
Power head sponge filters are very popular in planted tanks and will do the trick, but so wont hang on back filters and even canisters. Just keep in mind in a planted tank its recommended that you wash the filter whatever it may be at least once a month. Live plants are constantly dropping leaves and growing new ones so the filter will get clogged with plant matter on a regular basis. So keep all that in mind when shopping for a filter, pick one that will come clean easy and preferably has a customizable media available.
Substrate: There are many different types of substrate out there to choose from, from your high dollar organic aquatic plant substrates to gravel to just plain old sand. In my experience sand seems to work the best and is easiest to plant in and to keep clean, not to mention the natural look you get from most sands. now if you would like to have gravel pretty much anything will work for gravel substrates. when shopping be sure to not get something that is very large in diameter, I find that 1/8th of a inch to a quarter inch works best for the plants root systems. Now with the high dollar plant substrates, if you have the deep pockets then go ahead and get some but for the amount they charge the difference in plant growth is hardly noticeable.
Maintenance: With a low light planted tank there is a bit more maintenance then there was when you had a fish only system. Your going to want to do a partial water change at least once if not twice a month 25-40% to keep water parameters in check while also replacing trace elements that the plants need. When doing a water change don't vacuum the substrate (if using gravel) as there are decaying organics that are providing natural Co2 to the plants and disturbance/removal of those will only reduce the amount of available Co2 to the plants.
Now if you do notice extremely high nitrates 30ppm or more and they steadily rise then go ahead and vac about half of the substrate throughout the entire floor of the tank.
Cleaning Crew: Keep in mind not all of the species I'm going to recommend are going to be able to live peacefully with whatever your stock my be.
Siamese algae eaters
As a parting note all of the above is from my experience and has worked best for me on previous setups. This is merely a guide to get you going on what you're going to need and some recommendations on what to get. In a planted aquarium it is IMPORTANT to have balance with lighting, nutrients and Co2 (carbon source) as these are the 3 major rules that make up the planted tank balance triangle. If one is out of balance there will be algae and a lot of it. Take things slow at first shorter light on period (8hrs good start point) and a light fertilizer dose (x1 a week). The fish load and feeding should provide all of the Co2 you will need. Dialing in a systems balance is different for everyone and every tank. Finding the balance through trial and error is part of the fun, just keep that in mind!!!!
If I can help at least one person with this then I am satisfied. =)
Thank you finally a simple , reasonable explanation for a planted tank.
After having read through this article several times, and contemplating the information given here with what I have learned through running my own very successful low-light tanks, as well as several books that explore this concept in great detail, I feel that there is much room left for further investigation before a tank is set up using this guide as a reference. . .
There is some good information here, but some that seems a bit vague and unclear. In order to prevent any beginners from making mistakes that could potentially be heartbreaking, I'd like to direct members who are considering running a low-light tank to gather some more information before beginning. There are several other articles that have also been written by members of this forum, including one that helped me out quite a bit in the beginning; A Basic Approach to the Natural Planted Aquarium. There is no one 'right' way to run a tank - but it is always a good idea to learn as much as you are able before you begin!
That said, thank you for taking the time to compile the information you have gathered onto this thread! Hopefully we can all help each-other learn and grow - and keep the plants thriving, too! :-D
I think there are a number of points that need clearing up here....
1. there is no NEED to dechlorinate for the sake of the plants, in fact a lot of plants use chloramine as a nutrient source of ammonia. You DO HOWEVER have to dechlorinate for fish... It is worth bearing in mind that the key ingredient in dechlorinator is sodium thiosulphate and this in the incorrect dose can be dangerous to fish and plants alike.
2. The colour temperature of the light is really irrelevant .... whats really important is the colour composition. White light is split up into the colours of the rainbow. ranging from the violets through the blues to the greens, then to the yellows and oranges and to the reds at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Now each of these colours corresponds with a different wavelength of energy.... measured in NM or nanometers (there are other units used but the modern and most commonly used is the nanonmeter NM).
However plants ONLY use certain wavelengths between the 450nm and 700nm.... what they dont use is the area between 500nm and 575nm.... the green area of the spectrum.... they reflect this green light area of the spectrum and thats why we see MOST plants as being green.... because the plant has reflected the light in the green area out to out eyes.
SO what you should be looking fro in a bulb is the wavelengths of light that it emits. High emissions in the blues and violets coupled with high emissions in the reds and oranges.... and next nothing is needed in the green areas of the spectrum. The balance between the reds and the blue is what will give the colour temperature... which is measured in kelvins.
3. While it is true that a heavily planted tank CAN filter an entire tank if planted heavily enough and in healthy prime condition ... lets get real.... it cannot be done without help, at the very least in the form of aerators and other forms of water movement inducers! If you did try this it would result, very soon, in a very smelly stagnant puddle of water that would be deeply unattractive and borderline offensive to virtually anyone in the vicinity of 30 to 40 feet, and pretty much the only fish that could possibly live in it would be a pike or one of very few breeds of catfish!
4. Substrate... you need to be sure that you are using the right substrate for your fish and for the plants.... some plants will NOT appreciate sand and indeed need in fact to have the rhizome of the plant OUT of the substrate all together... for these plants it can be a case of tying them to a piece of bog wood. For many plants which have a soft root system there is little point using sand because its too dense to allow the roots to spread and grow.
Where gravel is concerned it is certainly NOT a case of pretty much anything will do.... you need to bear in mind the planst you have, the size of the gravel and the composition of the gravel.... Igneous, inert gravels stone should always be the composition of the gravel unless you know the composition and are looking for a specific effect for the gravel to have on the plants and tank.... for this specialist knowledge is really the key.... so specific research.
5. When doing tank maintenance it is important to keep the substrate free of detritus which will start rotting and producing organic wastes in the form of ammonia, methane and sulphuric compounds, this is not good for any fish and when it builds up... we all know what happens then (at least I seriously hope we ALL do!) In addition to this rotting vegetation produces humic acid which will over time cause shifts in the pH of your system.So gravel vacuuming should form part of your routine maintenance on a "reasonably regular basis"... observation is the key here.
There is much more to learn with plants but the real key is to research research and..... oh..... research!!!!!!!
ive had success with the points made in my guide in many tanks in the past, ive done sand and gravel both with no issues. ive done the heavy plants to the just a few here and there. ive done play sand to river pebbles all without issue. granted each system is different and so are outcomes.
Hiya Mitch ... Just to comment on the vacuuming point ... Unfortunately the science doesn't bear that course of action out because the carbon which is produced ends up as methane gas which is dissolved in the water and chemically making the carbon in available to the plants. Added to that there is the fact that for every milligram me of carbon that might be made available there is much much more detrimental sulphuric compound and humid acid produced which I'm sure you will agree is totally undesirable... I' also point out that cyano is not necessarily an issue here as its not a true algae but a bacterium ... so really this is a case of maintaining good tank routines in quarantine. So on the whole it's just not WORTH leaving the rotting vegetation there because on top of all this.... It LOOKS crappy!
I don't mean to be critical of your guide... It's a good starting place but I'd suggest padding it out a bit more, that's all.
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so your saying TO vac the gravel? just odd everyother person on this forum leans the other way with heavily planted tanks. ill see if I can get B to comment here
I understand what your saying here, but my personal experience along with many others on here that do not vac the gravel haven't seen any adverse effects on the fish. again this all depends on how many plants you keep. if you only have a few I would vac the gravel. but from what I have gathered and noticed in my tanks. when I vac the gravel I get algae blooms and crazy diatom outbreaks. yes they settle on their own but always has happened with a gravel vac.
but a question for you - where does the Co2 come from for the plants? is it just from the fish's respiration since you are saying the co2 that comes from the breakdown of organics is unable to be used by the plants. aren't the plants able to seek out and use any source of carbon in order to photosensitize as long as the other nutrients are available?
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