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. =)