33-Gallon Planted Freshwater Aquarium
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Keeping a planted aquarium free of algae is a delicate balance of water conditions, nutrients, light, and the biological activities of the plants and aquatic life. As time passes the plants grow which includes the dying of of older leaves, the development of new growth, and finally the creation of new plants through reproduction. The sea creatures taking up residence in the aquarium change as well and may have offspring. As the seasons pass the sunlight reaching the tank through the glass sliding doors changes not to mention daily sunlight fluctuations due to clouds. All of these variables can disrupt the balance necessary to minimize algae growth. While feeding is a variable, the amount of artificial light (and its spectrum), CO2 injected into the water, weekly water changes, and even chemical supplements are the factors that can be modified to keep the tank's overall chemistries in balance for minimum algae growth. As the objective is to have a rich bed of plant life with minimal algae growth, the tank's fish population is controlled to reduce disruptions in the aquarium's various biological cycles. While some algae growth is acceptable and can be easily removed, uncontrolled algae blooms, green water, and similar conditions are not only unsightly, but they can be life threading to the fish and plant life of the aquarium.
I purchase varying quantities of sea life (including plants) for the aquarium from time to time. Life expectancies for tropical fish are from months to decades; it depends on the aquarium's conditions, the conditions in which the fish were born, raised, transported, etc. Once released into an aquarium with numerous rock crevices and plenty of plants to hide in and around, it can be difficult to keep an accurate count. The listing below indicates the various sea life species currently known to be in the aquarium through observation.
|(Click on any photograph for a full screen image to appear in another browser window.)|
|On January 4, 2012, when I came to feed the fish in the late morning, one of the buds from the Marble Queen Radican that had popped up beyond the egg crate plastic cover over the planted aquarium had bloomed. The three pedal flower was white and about 3/4" across and high. The runner from the mother plant had three nodes along its length with multiple flower pod offshoots at each of the nodes. Several other flower pods are visible still below the egg crate cover.|
|On January 9, 2012, a second flower pod had bloomed durning the afternoon as the first (foreground right) was wilting away. The latest flowering pod was at the middle node of the three nodes on the runner from the mother plant. Flower pods can be seen for the end of the runner (far left pair in the photograph), with pods adjacent to the latest flower (middle) at the middle of the runner, and at the site of the first bloom closest to the mother plant on the runner (right foreground).|
|The runner from the Marble Queen Radican can be seen starting at the lower left and rising diagonally to the upper right were several small white roots mark the first node on the runner and the site of the first flower. The runner then makes it way to the rear of the tank and the 2nd node again marked with white roots below the waterline. The runner then routes back to the left along the back of the tank ending in the 3rd node and the longest white roots supporting a new plant forming at the end of the runner with several small leaves. Marble Queen Radicans reproduce with both plants and seeds so I'm curious to see the flowering pods turn to roots. Two plants from an earlier runner from the plant have been growing in the tank since late September.|
|The Planted Aquarium continues to do well after Christmas 2011. Unfortunately after getting the tank back to being in balance and nearly algae free, another hair algae bloom started; this time more aggressive then in the past. I decided to give Magnavore's Pura PhosLock a try based on some recommendations. The stuff works. Several tablespoons in a bag in the filter is all it took. I'd tried about everything else and nothing seemed to solve the algae problem so based on some research I added the PhosLock. PhosLock is a granulated ferric hydroxide oxide material that's red in color and looks like large grains of sand or small grains of gravel. It not only removes phosphates but also silicates, arsenic, and other heavy metals. It bonds the phosphate to the crystals and doesn't leach iron into the water. It is not inexpensive however, considering that its not affected the fish in the tank, the hair algae is gone, and the plants are thriving, I consider it well worth the investment.|
|The planted aquarium's Marble Queen Radican had exploded with big leaf growth. A result of eliminating the hair algae and its consumption of the CO2 has left more CO2 for the plants and they have really started to grow. The Radican has put off a runner that has to be at least two feel long with pod groups at three locations. The Wisteria is covering the right side of the tank and is going to need a trim shortly. The Spiralis is doing very well with long blades always in motion with the currents. The next step is to get some color into the tank with some red plantings and to add some substrate mat plantings as well. I may have to order the plants online however as it seems the local fish store, which is the best in the area, caters more to reef and salt water interests and fresh water aquaria with little interest in those who wish to operate a planted aquarium (in other words, they stock basic plants like you see above).|
|A few weeks after introducing the
plants and fish to the planted aquarium, a bloom of hair algae broke
out. The driftwood, rocks, and plants all had long strings of hair-like
algae streaming from them. It can be a common problem with planted
aquariums and unfortunately while it seems to be under control at the
moment, I suspect at some future date I'll have to deal with it again.
A bloom is created when the tank chemistry goes off-balance. Too
much uneaten food, too many phosphates, too much light, not enough CO2
are all potential causes including a combination of one or more causes.
Mine I believe was caused by not enough water circulation and too high a
phosphate level. I believe a low CO2 level was the initial
trigger. As the above and next two photographs show, the aquarium
is for all intents and purposes algae free. Even with a perfectly
balanced tank there will always be some algae present and in fact some
is required to feed the fish living in the tank. The Mollies and
Ottos in the tank prefer algae for their diet so eliminating algae
altogether would effectively starve the tank's inhabitants. The
real trick is to control the algae naturally and not rely on heavy doses
of chemicals to do the bulk of algae control.
The light over the tank is a 36-inch 4-tube Aquatic Life T5 HO aquarium fixture. It has timers that turn ON and off the two pairs of High Output T5 tubes. The "white" pair of tubes consists of a 10,000K and a 420/460 nm tube. The second pair, referred to as the "blue" pair of lamps has a 6,000K and a 650 nm tube paired together. The white set is on for 3-4 hours in the morning. Natural sunlight falls on the tank for 3-4 hours in the afternoon. The blue set then lights the tank for another 3-4 hours in the late afternoon and early evening. The aquarium's daily light cycle is completed with several "Moonlight" LEDs lighting during the evening hours until midnight. The tank is dark from midnight until the sun rises in the morning after which the white lights return.
The photograph above is of the tank with just the "blue" lamps illuminated which is the late afternoon and early evening lighting.
|The photograph above is of the tank
with just the "white" lamps illuminated which is the morning lighting.
Mornings are when the fish are fed so the brighter light helps them see
the food. They are fed a different diet every day. I feed
them TetraMin tropical fish flake food, freeze dried bloodworms, freeze
dried tubiflex worms, and frozen brine shrimp.
The long glass cylinder to the left of center in the photograph is the 100-watt heater. Under the substrate is a 50-watt heating cable that warms the substrate and causes water to circulate in the substrate to promote healthy plant growth. The undergravel heater has proven sufficient to maintain the aquarium's water temperature at 76 degrees Fahrenheit. Because the aquarium sits near a double pane sliding glass door, the are can get cool in the dead of winter if we have outdoor temperatures reaching near zero. The 100-watt heater serves as a backup to insure the tank's temperature never drops below 74 degrees Fahrenheit.
To the right of the 100-watt heater is a "CO2 Drop Checker". The upper glass sphere contains a CO2 indicator solution that is exposed to the water in the tank through an air interface. The lower sphere contains a reference solution. The CO2 that has been injected into the water by the CO2 system and reactor will outgass from the water. That causes the airspace between the tank water in the drop checker and the sphere of indicator solution to become saturated with CO2. The indicator solution will absorb CO2 and as it does it changes color depending on how much CO2 is absorbed. Comparing the color of the upper sphere of indicator solution with that of the lower sphere of reference solution tells if the tank's CO2 level is proper. If the indicator sphere is blue to the reference sphere (which is green) then insufficient CO2 is present in the water. If the indicator sphere is yellowish to the reference sphere then excessive CO2 is present in the water. When the color of the spheres match, the CO2 level is correct. With both spheres showing a green color for a period of time, the indication is that the tank has the recommended 30 ppm (parts per million) CO2 level and the water pH is around 6.6 to 6.8. Here is a photograph of a drop checker showing the colors.
|Above is the tank with both the white and blue lamps illuminated. Each lamp supplies 39 watts of light which amounts to 1.16 watts per gallon. The recommended lighting range is 2-3 watts per gallon for 10-12 hours per day. Thus with pairs of lamps illuminated the tank is provided with 2.36 watts per gallon of light in the morning and late afternoon and early evening. If I were to run all four lamps together for too long I'd quickly exceed the maximum light the plants need in a day to grow and not only would hair algae be a problem but the water would turn dark green and I'd encourage multiple other forms of algae to grow some of which are near impossible to remove.|
|It has been 6 weeks since the last several
photographs were posted so an update is in order. Above is the
planted aquarium on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2011. No
artificial lighting is on for the picture and the sunlight from the
sliding glass doors illuminates the aquarium though the vertical blinds.
If you click on the photo a larger copy will open in another browser
window/tab and you can see in more detail how the plants have grown.
The Marble Queen Radican has really put up some large variegated leaves
(left of center). Across the back of the tank the Spiralis is
growing well with leaves reaching a foot or more in length now (the tank
is 18" high). Off to the right the Wisteria is crawling
across the bottom of the tank and filling in the right end to cover up
the filter down pipes.
Close examination of the large version of the above photograph will reveal that a hair algae bloom that occurred several weeks ago now seems to be under control. 4-5 weeks ago a bloom of hair algae started growing on everything and quickly increased with strands 2-3 long gracefully waving in the water. Increased CO2 injection knocked it down along with decreased artificial lighting. When the CO2 reached a level were the fish were gulping air from the water's surface a 2nd canister filter (Marineland Magnum HOT Canister Filter) was added. The filter incorporates a high-capacity pump which increases the water movement to that of a small stream so that sediments don't lay on the bottom but are stirred up and can be removed by either of the aquarium's filters. The existing Eheim filter includes substrate materials to promote a healthy bacteria bed to remove toxins from the water (as well as feed the CO2 reactor and UV sterilizer light) while the Marineland filter performs water polishing (it has a micron filter inside). Water polishing at the micron level removes any algae spores and other fine organic matter that promote algae growth. Finally two tablespoons of Pura PhosLock Phosphate Remover in the filter insures a low phosphate level to retard algae growth. Hopefully with the reduction of hair algae in the tank it will be completely eliminated in another week or two signaling the biological, chemical, and other cycles of the plated aquarium are in balance.
|Back around October 2nd one of the four Mollies in the tank gave birth to fry. Mollies are live bearers and at that time at least 5-6 fry were born. Four have survived and can be seen in this photo near their larger mother (partially hidden behind the Spiralis. Also seen in the photo is one of the Ottos on a Spiralis leaf above mother Mollie along with a second Otto clinging to the back glass panel of the aquarium. Several Cardinal Neons school in the photograph along with two of the Sebra Tetras.|
|On November 22nd several more baby Mollies were seen swimming in the Wisteria while being camouflaged against the black substrate gravel. Ma Mollie had delivered another batch of fry (Mollies can have several groups of fry from a single impregnation by the male). I've seen at least three fry at one time from this batch. With all the plants growing well in the aquarium there's a lot more hiding places thus counting the total number is impossible. It has only been in recent weeks that the fry of the Oct 2nd have grown sufficiently (about 1/3rd full grown) and been swimming with their tank mates that I could determine that four have survived. There are two swimming in those photograph -- can you spot them? Click on the photo for an enlargement.|
|Every three to four days a scraping of the glass
walls of the aquarium with a foam pad is required to remove the algae
that starts to grow. October 5, 2011 was a scraping day as well as
a pruning and planting day. The Marble Queen Radican's runner had
two daughter plants with good root structures and leaves so the runner
was cut and the two daughter plants planted mid-tank in the substrate.
Additionally the Amazon Sword plants had several large leaves starting
to die so those were cut and removed.
Seen along the upper left side of the photograph is the sterilizer that has been added to the aquarium. The sterilizer was part of my original freshwater tank years ago and required a new UV-C lamp and seals to be functional again. Water from the CO2 reactor is now returned to the tank through the sterilizer. The sterilizer will limit the growth of algae in the water as well as eliminate microorganisms such as parasites and bacteria. As parasites are larger and thus more resistant to the sterilizer's UV-C lamp irradiation (253.7 nanometer light), the water flow through the sterilizer is about two aquarium changes (60 gallons) per hour.
One of the pleasures of the tank is to sit and watch the fish live out their lives. In mid afternoon the sun streams in the sliding door and sets the plants to really generating oxygen. The natural sunlight really highlights the colors of the scales of the various species of fish in the aquarium as well. During the day only two of the 39-watt lights are illuminated in the morning and afternoon with the sunlight being the only illumination in the early afternoon. On occasion, while eating dinner after dark I will switch on all four lamps in the fixture which brings the light intensity and color spectrum close to natural sunlight and the plants will start producing oxygen profusely. Two streams of bubbles are seen in the above photograph. The one-minute video clip below shows not only these streams but a fine one right of center along with a number of bubbles rising randomly from the tank's plants.
|Click the above icon for a one-minute video of the aquarium. You'll note numerous oxygen bubbles rising from the plants indicating healthy photosynthesis occurring. The video was taken with my Xoom tablet and there is a little camera motion during the video.|
|Sunday morning chores around the house now include cleaning algae from the planted tank's interior glass surfaces as well as a 10% water change before the tank is fed. While observing the tank's occupants my eye caught a movement in the substrate off to the right corner of the tank. My first thought was "don't tell me the tank has worms". Upon closer examination, the movements were several baby Mollies swimming about the Wisteria and black substrate. One of the two female Mollies I purchased on Thursday was with young and delivery day was Sunday, October 2, 2011. Mollies are livebearing fish so as babies are born they immediately seek protection in the plants as well as the crevices of rock formations. The are approximately 1/4" to 3/8" long and not easy to see with the black substrate and the dense leaves of the Wisteria. As soon as another tank fish or shrimp get anywhere near them they rocket away at an amazing speed. I'm not sure the total number born (8-12 is generally expected) but there are at least seven that I've seen and been able to count at one time in the 7,000 cubic inches of tank volume. They swim about in groups of two and three keeping to the densely planted areas of Foxtail, Wisteria, and rock formations at the bottom of the tank.|
|The planted aquarium contains three species of
freshwater dwarf shrimp. Dwarf shrimp became popular in the
aquarium community in the 1990's and are now widely available at most
aquarium stores. They grow to a little more than an inch in length
and are actually available in many different colors and color
variations. They are excellent scavengers for picking through an
aquarium's substrate to find food particles and they love a diet that
includes abundant algae. Perhaps their worst characteristic is
their molting of their exoskeleton every month or so as they grow which
needs to be removed from the aquarium substrate.
Pictured above are a pair of Red Crystal Shrimp on the top of the driftwood. Clinging to the side is a Chinese Zebra Shrimp looking down on a Red Cherry Shrimp. A Google search for "dwarf aquarium shrimp" will turn up more information on these fascinating invertebrates.
|The above photo was taken late afternoon on September 26, 2011 with the afternoon sun highlighting the planted aquarium just after the 6,000K and 650 nm lamps were illuminated.|
|One of the features of current aquarium lighting
systems is to more closely emulate the natural outdoor lighting the
planted aquarium experiences. The AquaticLife 36" fixture contains
four T5 High-output (HO) lamps controlled by timers along with eight
high-intensity blue LEDs also timer controlled. T5 bulbs are are
5/8" in diameter and are more "green" than traditional T12 fluorescent
lamps (40% less glass, 30% less phosphors, 70% less mercury, energy
efficient electronic ballasts).
The fixture is programmed to activate one pair of lamps (10,000K & 420/460 nm) from 8AM until 1PM. From 3PM until 8:30PM the second pair of lamps (6,000K and 650 nm) are illuminated. The fixture being OFF between 1PM and 3PM coincides with the sun angle supplying indirect sunlight through the glass sliding door to the planted aquarium. The two hours of dark time mid-afternoon has the added benefit that the decrease in intense artificial lighting makes it more difficult for algae to grow. At 8:30PM the timers switch ON the moonlight LEDs to provide a natural moonlight condition for the fish and plants. At 2AM the moonlight "sets" and the tank is dark until 8AM.
|Click the above link for a 30-second video under moonlight on September 26, 2011. In the video you'll see the Otto Catfish scurrying up and down the left side of the tank while the Zebra Danios dart just under the surface of the water. The school of Cardinal Tetras are easily seen with their neon strips reflecting in the moonlight when then turn parallel to the camera to reflect the light properly.|
|In September 2011 the planted
aquarium was just becoming established with the Nitrogen and Carbon
Cycles. An assortment of plants were purchased along with some
easily maintained fish to get the nitrogen biological cycle going in the
tank. While we live in an open environment, any aquarium
represents a closed environment and thus all decaying plant matter, fish
waste, and uneaten food can create biological stress for the plants and
fish if not dealt with properly. It turns out that on the grandest
of scales, Earth is a closed environment as well and thus Nature has
bacteria and other organisms to deal with decay and waste. The
trick is to get it going in the aquarium. The photo above shows a
fine stream of oxygen bubbles rising from a plant indicating the planted
aquarium's cycles are starting to function and become properly balanced.
Fish waste is ammonium (NH4) and ammonia (NH3) rich and after the fish are introduced to the tank, the levels start to rise. A Nitrosomonas bacteria must grow in the filtering system and the gravel substrate which feed on the ammonium and ammonia converting it to nitrite (NO2). While the ammonia products are harmful to the fish, the nitrites are even more toxic Nitrites in the tank give rise to Nitrobacter bacteria which convert the nitrites into nitrates (NO3) which are only harmful in very high concentrations. Once the Nitrobacter bacteria are present, the ammonium, ammonia, and nitrite levels soon fall to very low levels and the tank is considered "established".
Getting the nitrogen cycle started is a lot easier with a planted aquarium because plants love ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates -- its fertilizer! Plenty of fertilizer is one of the three things plants need to flourish; the others being CO2 and light. This is where the Carbon Cycle comes into play. Plants take CO2, water, and light and through photosynthesis convert it to glucose and oxygen. Add in the fertilizer from the Nitrogen Cycle and the planted aquarium becomes a nearly self-contained biological system.
Being a planted aquarium, dissolving CO2 into the water is part of the overall system design along with a light fixture that simulates natural sunlight. By adding CO2 to the water it allows for an abundant mat of plants to eventually occupy the tank without growing plumes of algae due to an abundance of light. When the tank is operating in a balanced mode, the fish are healthy and their secretions are generating the required fertilizers for the plants. The high-intensity lighting and increased CO2 levels in the water allow photosynthesis to occur and quickly generate plant growth.
When the system is functioning properly one of the results is the plants producing oxygen along with abundant new growth. Pictured above is the runner from the Marble Queen Radican streaming fine bubbles of oxygen. The runner is seen in at the top center of the photo below and with full intensity lighting photosynthesis is abundant and oxygen is not only streaming from the Marble Queen Radican but oxygen bubbles can also be seen on a Spiralis leaf at the center right.
|Click the above link for a 30-second video of
the Marble Queen Radican's offshoot
bubbling a fine stream of oxygen on September 20, 2011.
|33-gallon Planted Aquarium after one
week of operation with plants and fish; September 19, 2011. Below I've
posted a short video of the aquarium with the schools of Cardinal Tetras
and Zebra Tetras swimming around. The fish and plants were purchased
from the local aquarium store in order to get the biological cycles of
the tank started, etc. Once the plants take hold and the nitrate,
nitrite, ammonia, CO2 and other biological cycles are going properly the
tank will be planted with a more diverse selection of plant life.
A Planted Aquarium relies on CO2 injection to supply nutrients to the plants for them to grow better. The light over the tank is a 36-inch 4-tube Aquatic Life T5 HO aquarium fixture. It has timers that turn on one pair of lamps (10,000K & 420/460 nm) in the morning, a second pair of lamps (6,000K and 650 nm) in the afternoon, with a set on moonlight LEDs lighting at night all to simulate natural sunlight for the plants to grow.
As seen in the photograph, a limited number and variety of plants occupy the planted aquarium. The Nitrogen and Carbon Cycles must be established and establishing them slowly, over a couple weeks, is the best method. The fish will quickly start the Nitrogen cycle and with about ten hours of illumination per day (and the natural sunlight that enters from the left) and an initial low rate of CO2 injection in the water, the aquarium will establish itself over several weeks. Once established a more diverse assortment of plants may be added.
|I custom built the red oak stand for the 33-gallon
aquarium back in the late 1980s. The tank is an all glass Marineland
Flatback Hex tank. When full of water, substrate, and rocks it weighs
approximately 325 pounds.
The red cylinder is a 10 pound bottle of CO2. Off the top is a soda system pressure regulator, solenoid valve, and needle valve. At the far right is the Eheim Classic 2213 filter with the substrate heater temperature controller on the top. Between the two is my homemade CO2 reactor for dissolving the CO2 gas into the aquarium water. The reactor is fed about a bubble a second of CO2. Water leaving the filter is circulated through the reactor to pick up the CO2. The reactor is full of 1/4" and 5/16" plastic balls to act as a diffuser for the CO2 bubbles so that the CO2 bubbles are in contact with the water allowing for full absorption. A timer only activates CO2 flow when the tank lighting is on.
|Click the above link for a 45-second video of the tank's inhabitants taken September 19, 2011.|
|In late August 2011 the tank and stand were brought
to the kitchen and everything was cleaned. The tank will filled
with water and left sit for a week to insure it held water.
Knowing it would hold water the filter, light, substrate, and other
items needed were ordered. The driftwood that had been in the
aquarium when it was a freshwater fish tank was placed in the aquarium
so that it could again become waterlogged. When the ordered items
arrived the tank was drained, cleaned one last time, and the stand
As I wanted the lightfixture suspended above the tank I purchased to 5/8" steel rods and bent them in to resemble a walking cane so that the light fixture's suspension wires could be attached. The rods were mounted to the back of the oak stand and covered with black plastic wire loom. With the tank stand in its final location a check of levelness was done before the driftwood was placed in the tank along with some red rocks from the terrarium.
Planted aquariums seem to function with less problems if the substrate is heated similar to the way the Earth holds its heat year round. The water in the substrate warms, rises out of the substrate and as a result cooler water with nutrients is drawn into the substrate for the plant roots to feed on. A 50-watt Hydor Hydrocable was laid on the bottom of the tank. The Hydrocable is controlled by a Hydor Hydroset Electronic Thermostat which switches the cable on and off to maintain a uniform tank temperature of around 77-degrees Fahrenheit. CaribSea Floramax Planted Aquarium Substrate was washed to remove any dusting and sediment before being added to the tank (36 pounds of black) to cover the Hydrocable and the slate bases of the driftwood. Finally some small red stones from the terrarium were added to provide additional aquascape.
The tank was then slowly filled with about 30 gallons of water that had been treated to remove chlorine and other chemicals that are added my municipal water companies. When filled the tank's water was almost a milky white from the sediment and such from the substrate. The Eheim 2213 filter was assembled using simple foam filtering disks and a load of crushed carbon chips, primed, and allowed to run. To supplement the 50-watt Hydrocable substrate heater, a 100-watt aquarium heater from my past aquarium was added to the tank to insure that the aquarium's temperature doesn't drop below 75-degrees Fahrenheit in the winter months as the planted aquarium is adjacent to a sliding glass door for natural sunlight. The water started to clear and 24 hours later the above photograph shows the results. The tank was allowed to sit for another four days before the first plants and fish were introduced on September 15, 2011. With the addition of the fish and plants the Eheim 2213 filter was changed over to recommended biological filtering mediums.
|This is the 33-gallon tank as it sat in the basement.
After turning the unfinished basement into a TV room in the late 1980s,
this was the first aquarium I purchased and got running. I built
the stand to match the aquarium and set the whole works up as a
freshwater aquarium. The tank operated into the early 1990s before
I lost interest and turned it into a terrarium as seen above. In
2011, I again started thinking about restarting this aquarium as a
freshwater system but had concerns.
A good friend in Norman, Oklahoma was telling me of his two planted aquariums, sharing photos of his handiwork, and answering my many questions. I got hooked and started investigating what resources are available in Delaware (turns out not much for Planted Aquariums) and how I might be able to create something with my aquarium (if it still held water after being dry for nearly two decades). After a lot of coaching, I decided to plunge in and moved the aquarium from the basement to the kitchen where I would enjoy it a lot more. I then began the process of setting up a Planted Aquarium. Special lighting, the CO2 injection system, the plant substrate, and all the rest that goes into any aquarium all got expensive quickly going over my budget by a factor of two. Thus far I'm most happy with the results and have gotten hours of enjoyment watching things grow. The money spent hopefully will be enjoyed for months and years to come.