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The Natural Aquarium, 8 Aquarium Setup

Updated on January 27, 2015

So many choices, so much beauty


What You Need

Your tank, lighting, filter, heater, and a stand for the tank, or someplace to set the tank than can take the weight. Figure water at 8.33 pounds per gallon of water.

Get as much light in the tank as you can.

For your substrate, use washed sand, swimming pool filter sand, where available. Use about 1 pound per gallon of aquarium volume, so a 50 gallon tanks takes 50 pounds of substrate. More or less, as desired, but at least an inch of sand.

You will need water dechlorinator. Use a strong one, that is several cheap ones take only 1 drop per gallon or less.

African “driftwood” which is really a tree root, now usually called African Root. I thought it was expensive at $1.85 per pound, now it is over $6.00 per pound. This is costly, worth it for appearance, but also options, such as rocks to fit your desires.

Regarding plants, remember that Ambulia ambulates around the tank, Anubias can be attached to the driftwood by fishing line, Riccia (if you can find it) can be tucked under the root of Anubias, never bury the stem of the Anubias, just attach or bury part of the root. Simple formula, if you bury the stem the plant will die in short order. Look at the variety of plants available at your local fish store and ask how they grow. Check online, but buy only from companies with a good reputation.

Avoid Java Moss (not Java Fern) since it competes for food and has allopathic responses with Ambulia and water lilies, but more than that it is a messy amorphic plant that you will live to at least mildly regret. Many other moss choices exist, check online.

Heater according to the fish you raise and your ambient temperatures. Tropical fish live in warm water. Pick up a thermometer at the same time. The heater should keep the water between 70 and 80 degrees, according to your fish selection.

Canister filter filled with 3M scratch pad type material, hoses and appropriate attachments that come with it.

You need fish, but not until the tank is completed. Buy them a day or two after the tank is completed, add a few, and then more unless you have a friend who can give you his aquarium water which has the bacteria and fungi you need for a biological filter to operate and prevent ammonia from spiking and killing your fish.

The Sequence

Set up the stand in the chosen location, check to see that it is basically level and squarely on the ground. Remember, water is about 63 pounds per cubic foot, the substrate is heavier (it sinks), as are rocks, the glass in the tank, African Root wood, and so forth. Be sure you can get into the stand where most people store items they need for the tank, and that the electrical power is close by.

Put the aquarium on the stand, check your lighting and be sure you have room for the canister filter, and the tank is where you really want it to be.

Load the filter with the 3M material and fill the filter with water. You don’t need to treat this small amount of water, but you can.

Dump in the sand or substrate and level it out. Figure out how you want the wood to look in the tank. There are thousands of ways to do this but the from side and any end close to where people approach should be lower, and therefore should not have wood.

Fill the tank to about 20% full so it will start to settle. Add enough water treatment for the entire tank so you don’t have to do this later if you are using water from the tap. There are no fish at this point and any plant you put it can take the chemicals. Later when you add more water, to keep the water from clouding again, point the water flow to the glass or onto the wood to reduce turbidity.

Now tie on any plants to the wood and put it into the partly filled tank. Arrange the other rooted plants in the tank. Don’t worry if they are exposed to air for a while. Do pay attention to how they grow. If they grow tall, plant them in the back of the tank. Small, low growers in the front and medium growers in the back. Also, don’t worry about being too detailed, you can always redo it later, in fact, this is part of the fun of owning a tank.

Fill the rest of the tank and turn on the filter.

Watch the circulation of the tank which will be visible because of the particulate suspended in the water. Ideally, you can put the outflow and inflow tubes on opposite sides of the tank. This helps in keeping the tank looking good as organic materials will accumulate at the intake side.

Think about the circulation and change it if you need to and if you can. You do want to hide the intake pipe if you can so ideally, this is in a corner away from most viewing and the highest plant area of the tank. You will need to clean the intakes filter once in a while since larger things will get caught in it and reduce intake volume.

The inflow should be simply just below the water level with no dispersing end (remove one if it is there) to prevent disturbing the surface which helps maintain CO2 in the tank.

You are done!

If you must you can add your fish now, but it is better to wait a day or so.

Water Circulation

If there is a way to accomplish this, have the water circulating from one side to the other by placing the water inflow on the opposite side from the water outflow.

Additionally, do not have the inflow at the surface, rather try not to disturb the surface if possible with the water inflow and whatever nozzle comes with the filter. Increase the length of the pip if need be to lower this into the tank. Point the nozzle in such a manner as to circulate the detritus toward the intake side.

Remember, bacteria will form a very thin and invisible barrier at the water surface if allowed to which will help hold in CO2 and help the plants grow faster.

Say this three times:

Plants grow faster with higher levels of CO2.

Plants grow faster with higher levels of CO2.

Plants grow faster with higher levels of CO2, Ohmmmm. . .

In fact both people and plants do better with eight to ten times the current levels being claimed in our atmosphere.

You Author


Options, To Change or Not to Change, That is the Question

How often to change water, clean bottom?

This is really up to you, and how you set up the tank.

I remember drifting over a shallow area in the lower Colorado River one day in a canoe. The area was surrounded by reeds and so was the inside of a shallower sandbar. Under the boat was the dark brown caused by detritus built up over many years. While the bottom was covered and you did not want to walk through it for fear of what might be under it, say, a broken beer bottle from some mindless college party, you did want to fish there as it was quite alive with fish of different sizes. This is biology, and just as you cannot live without food, but probably can live with less food, so the aquarium plants and fish, snails, and so forth need food as well. Some of these are detritivorous, that is, they eat all that material on the bottom. That is how they are made.

If you use tap water, plants grow faster with water changes because water is treated with calcium carbonate which is a plant nutrient. Riccia loves water changes. However, none of the plant require changes.

Fish mulm, or droppings, and plant materials will be on the bottom of the tank and slowly work their way toward the intake area, settling on the bottom until something disturbs it and you will get small dust storms when it is disturbed. If this disturbs you more that disturbs the tank you will also need a siphon type bottom cleaner to such it up. Be sure to add the appropriate amount of water treatment to the water you replace.

Fish, however, are disrupted by water changes in a well planted tank. It lowers their immunity by stressing them “emotionally” if you will, and biologically since the new water has other chemicals added that must be dealt with by the biology in the tank.

Watch the Intake

The interesting thing here is that you can watch the intake by watching the outflow. When it slows, you need to know why. Often it is the intake filter, that plastic tube with the slots that blocks fish and large organic from entering the filters.

Simply pull it off, take it someplace and wash it off. This tanks about 3 minutes and will increase the filtering of water.

Sometimes enough CO2 or bubbles get into the filter and the impeller can’t perform well. Usually there is a small pump on the top and operating it a few times will resolve this. If your filter does not have this, try tipping the top to get the bubble to change position and become entrapped in the water flow, exiting with the water into the tank.

Sometimes when you mess with the filter, you will get some detritus (organic debris) coming out for a minute. Don’t worry, this will clear in a little while. Just don’t do this when you have friends over looking at the tank.

If the water outflow is diminished but the intake filter is clear, then it may be time to rinse the filer material.

I quite literally mean just that. Take the filter outside or in a sink (last resort), take it apart, and rinse out the detritus built up, then reassemble it and restart the system. That is the hardest part of this type of system.

Consider this: I used to take the filter our every week, dump the materials, reload it, reassemble it, and then run to the store to buy more. What a pain. Now, once a year or so, I simply rinse out this material and I am done.

Wait until you get to the paludarium to see how easy that is. Since snails can get to the filter, you don’t even need that.

Trimming Your Plants

If you enjoy a forest-like plant growth, which I do, you need to watch the top plants for algae accumulation at the surface. You don’t want this, just clean it off by cutting back the plants.

Ambulia tops are the nicest part of that plant with their slightly reddish, compact display of leaves. If I have the room in my current landscape design, I cut the front ones short and the rear ones long so I can see many tops a few days after they are cut.

Some people like Anubias in dense clumps, others as they climb onto wood, or with mosses intertwined.

Some, many, like African Root wood with or without plants growing on it. Some simply cover tall pieces with mosses and allow them to drape themselves over the branches.

This is your tank, keep it looking the way you like. You need to decide how you want it to look. This is your living artwork. Check the web for options. There are thousands of pictures of well planted tanks to look at and glean ideas from.

Since my main tank is in a corner to the left side and rear, I make the left and rear the highest area and slope the plants and wood to the front right where I have a very small (2”) green Cryptocoryne that looks a bit like grass. The paludarium (see below) is visible from both sides, and so the filter is in the rear by the wall.

Arrange your plants so they and the fish can be best seen in whatever configuration you set up. Each and every tank os different and so are their creators.

Keeping the Glass Clean

For the outside of the tank, use an appropriate glass cleaner periodically to keep it clean. In the inside the best way is a magnet cleaner or scraper. If you have a sand bottom be very careful not to pick up sand which will scratch the glass and especially acrylic tanks which scratch easily. A plastic card does a great job and will not scratch.

But some Otocinclis and shrimp to help the snails control algae. Do not buy Chinese Algae Eaters, they will get too large and start eating other fish. The Siamese will get large but eat only dead fish, and this is good, but they can be hard to get rid of.

Another fish to avoid it Plecostomus which does a great job of eating algae after it eats all the other plants in the tank. This is not a joke.

Algae eating shrimp are very common; buy plenty of them assuming you do not have fish that may eat them.

A well maintained tank will have some algae growth controlled by these fish and by hand harvesting. If it gets too bad try a product called Algae Fix and follow directions, but remember there is a price to pay, you may lose some fish of you use too much, or too frequently and have fish that eat algae.

Algae is goof for the tank, so, Total Annihilation is not the order of the day.

Be sure to have some Red Rams Horn Snails. They will eat everything else before bothering a live plant, including the dying leaves. A few small holes in a leaf will not diminish its appearance enough that you will notice. Trim leaves that are too badly mangled, but simply poke them into the san substrate to recycle the nutrient.

Remember that decaying organic matter (plants and fish) in the tank feeds the plants by making CO2 and other nutrients, so leave what you can and remove only what you can’t stand anymore.

Do not dump iron compounds into the water. There is sufficient amounts in the foods you feed the fish and it will cause algae growth.

© 2015 Ronald A Newcomb


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