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Discussion Starter #1 (Edited by Moderator)
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


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.

Amano shrimp
Siamese algae eaters
Dojo Loach
Mystery Snail
Nerita Snails
Ramshorn Snails

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. =)
 

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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
 

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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!!!!!!!
 

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Discussion Starter #6
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!!!!!!!
very valid points, I choose to keep the guide as basic as possible and avoided going into deep detail about pretty much everything. its more as a starting point then anything and works very well with B's stickies in the planted section. As far as vacing the gravel I will have to disagree with you there. And the reason for doing so is when you vac up those nasties that are breaking down you are removing one of the naturally occurring carbon sources. yes this really only applies in a heavily planted tank and I would still vac if you only had a few plants to prevent cyano and everything else.

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.
 

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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
Yes I AM saying TO vac the gravel.... to be honest I dont care who you get to comment on this, facts are facts. The ONLY reason not to vac the gravel is to try to ensure the roots dont get damaged. If you dont vac the gravel the substrate WILL become anaerobic and dangerous for any fish and inverts you have in there.
 

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Discussion Starter #10 (Edited)
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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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?
Plants do produce Co2 at night remember and thats a natural process of photosynthesis, and I didnt say that the co2 is unusable .... read the post again, i said "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."

Simple fact .... keep substrates clean and use good quality fertilisers (which your rightly point out) and root fertilisers .... and your plants AND fish will have the maximum lifespan.
 

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Discussion Starter #12
ok so the carbon from the DO is in the form of methane gas that is dissolved in the water right? meaning there is no carbon but actually methane gas? I understand there is very very low in measureable amounts of co2 in a non injected tank and I know how plants switch from night to day. but within lights on the amount of co2 would be used up within hours of lights on.

without a constant source of co2 the plants would not be actively growing which I would think the DO (decomposing organics) that are decomposing constantly in the substrate along with the fish breathing is enough carbon to keep the plants photosynthesizing during photo rather then burning up all the co2 from the night before.

and the algae blooms and diatom bloom from when I vac the gravel - theres nitrates from the DO and when the substrate is stirred they enter the water colum and cause a algae bloom right? so in theory you wouldn't need root tabs then if your not vacing the gravel since the plants will use the (DO). this would lead me to the answer why not to vac your gravel right? thus keeping nitrates to a minimum in a planted tank when substrate is not vaced.
 

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also would you happen to have any cited sources?
27 years of experience and trial and error is a good start... Im going to let this drop now because im not going to get into the sort of debates I see so often in this forum... my suggestion is do what YOU feel is right for you... but monitor and keep a good diary of your experiences.

Have a good time! ;)
 

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I don't intend for this to be simply argumentative; we are here to exchange knowledge and opinions, so in that spirit I must make a couple of corrections.

First on the light spectrum/wavelengths. It is true that plants use light in the red and blue wavelengths for photosynthesis. But there is also the scientific evidence that aquatic plants grow best when green/yellow light is predominant. A study [K. Richards, The Effects of Different Spectrum Fluorescent Bulbs on the Photosynthesis of Aquatic Plants, Freshwater & Marine Aquarium, July 1987, pp. 16-20] determined that plants photosynthesized best [= more oxygen was produced] under a combination of Vita-Lite [which is rich in red and blue] and cool white [produces mainly green/yellow], and second best under straight cool white. Third best (poorest growth) was under the straight Vita Lite. At this point I will cite from Diana Walstad's book since she has opinioned why this might be the case.
The fact that plants did very well with Cool-white, which produces mostly green-yellow light was an unexpected result of this study. One would have expected the plants to do better with Vita-Lite. This is because Vita-Lite was designed for growing plants; its spectrum, which is rich in red and blue light, matches the light absorption of plant chlorophyll much better than Cool-white and many other fluorescent bulbs.
Cool-white was found to give off 13% more photosynthetic light than Vita-Lite. Perhaps Cool-white's slightly higher light intensity explains its better performance? However, I would also argue that green-yellow light is what many submerged aquatic plants encounter in their natural environment. Aquatic light is not like terrestrial light where the blue and red wavelengths predominate. Aquatic light is unique. This is because the water itself absorbs red light, while DOC [dissolved organic carbon] absorbs blue light. What's left for plant photosynthesis is mainly green-yellow light. Aquatic plants may have adapted their photosynthetic machinery (over the course of evolution) to use green-yellow light fairly efficiently. Thus, the assumption that aquatic plants grow best with full-spectrum light may not be valid.
At this point, I would refer members to all written articles by acknowledged planted tank sources which maintain that light around 6000K to 7000K is best for aquarium plant growth. Walstad in another section of her book mentions that the combination of red/blue and green/yellow that is found in tubes having either a K rating between 5000K and 7000K or a CRI of 80-100 is the closest match to the best light for plants. I carried out a minor study on this and found it to be so.

Moving on to the substrate issue. As organics in the substrate decompose, CO2 is released and plants take this up. The largest source of CO2 in an aquarium comes from the substrate, not from respiration of fish/plants/bacteria. This is in fact the only real benefit of using soil; the initial release of CO2 from the organics in soil provide a significant source of carbon for plants in a new aquarium. But as Walstad [who is pro-soil substrate exclusively] admits, any sand or gravel substrate will become equivalent after organics have been allowed to settle into it. Removing significant amounts of organics from the substrate is counter-productive in a natural method planted tank.

Fine gravel or coarse sand has been determined to be the best substrate with respect to plants. I use mainly play sand, and as the photos of my tanks under the "Aquariums" tab below my name on the left illustrate, the plants are certainly thriving.

In most of these tanks, I never touch the substrate. There seems to be sufficient CO2 being produced naturally to balance a light period of 8 hours; going beyond this, algae becomes a nuisance, due I believe to the insufficient carbon which is the only nutrient [apart from oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen] I am not adding artificially.

The issue of de-nitrification in the substrate is one that is largely mis-understood. Anaerobic activity is actually a vital aspect of a healthy aquarium. This post is getting long as it is, so rather than go into all this, I would refer members to my article on bacteria:
http://www.tropicalfishkeeping.com/freshwater-articles/bacteria-freshwater-aquarium-74891/

I realize I reference Walstad frequently, but simply because she [a microbiologist] has probably done the most research into all this. Her book, Ecology of the Planted Aquarium, is a solid source of much scientific evidence. Given time, I could pull out articles by other aknowledged authorities to substantiate what is above.

Byron.
 

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Thank you all for taking the time to clarify your opinions!

I didn't intend to start a debate, but I do feel that it is important for a new aquarist to take the time to explore the views and research on all sides in order to come to a full understanding themselves - preferably before stocking.

The most important thing, whichever school of thought you follow, is to pay attention to what your tank (and everything in it) is telling you, and to be willing to make adjustments should they be needed. . . :)
 

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A reasonable compromise on the vacuuming issue would be to do so when the amount of buildup detracts from the appearance of the tank. Cleaning in open areas that look messy makes sense and helps keep nitrates at healthier levels. We don't all have the same plant and fish stocking levels and we don't all feed our plants and animals in the identical manner. When you see photos of tanks owned by some folks who never vacuum, they seem pristine. Why would you vacuum in that case ? Let's face it, appearance is a major factor for having an aquarium in the first place. Finding the balance between the type of plants and fish and your tolerance for the degree of maintenance or lack thereof is extremely important. Too often, we try to force our will upon situations with disappointing results. I'm the worst offender; however, I'm trying to change and believe it will make for happier tanks and a happier aquarium keeper in me.
 

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also would you happen to have any cited sources?
Since you brought it up....

Why is it that they need to provide you with cited sources, when you didn't provide any for your article? Byron always cites sources for his articles. Any time you use someone else's ideas, you are supposed to cite them as a source - when you are writing things like articles. Otherwise, it's plagiarism.
 
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Discussion Starter #19
yes and again to clarify, it was all a guide wrote up with the intentions to be very basic and easy to follow as possible. I purposely didn't go into the whole why to vac and why to use certain lights etc etc to not overwhelm and confuse someone new looking into planted tanks. the debate that this led to I think is what turns people off from planted tanks. yes there are many many ways to do things and each system is different. sometimes trying to convince and force your way onto others just turns into a crazy very technical debate.

anyways im sure a lot will agree its still not a bad place to start for a planted tank, then I would strongly recommend looking into byrons guide to planted aquarium if after you read this and still have the will to learn more and plan to build a planted tank.
 

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Hi, as a new planted tank wanna be i see this article as pretty good information, ideally people will research different views, and sources before making rash judgements.. thanks for some insightful info..
 
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