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Maintaining a Planted Aquarium

Maintaining a Planted Fish Tank

After setting up your planted aquarium, the next step is to establish a regular maintenance program, as you would with any aquarium. Nutrient dosing, trimming, water exchanges, manual CO₂ system operation and filter maintenance must be done on a regular basis. You'll need to set up daily, weekly and monthly routines to keep your display thriving and looking its best.

Newly Established Planted Aquariums: What to Expect in the Beginning

During the first few weeks – and even months, in larger tanks – your planted aquarium will be trying to find balance. This isn't always a smooth process, so it's important to be patient and let nature take its course if things don't go perfectly right away. You may get a little algae growth, a funky slime or fuzz may grow on your favorite piece of driftwood, or the water may be slightly hazy or have a brown tint due to tannins from driftwood. Don't panic or resort to drastic actions like tearing the whole tank down and starting over. All these things are normal and happen to lots of other people. The trick is to understand why they're happening and know what to do – or NOT do – to get yourself and your aquarium through this phase.

Algae – Algae outbreaks are common in newly set up aquariums. Planted tanks can be even more susceptible because we typically use high-output lighting, we're dosing fertilizers and in many cases, we're also adding CO₂. Algae love all these things! Because new tanks are in a state of imbalance and the plants haven't started outcompeting them yet, algae are able to gain a foothold. If your light has dimming capabilities, lower the intensity until the algae dissipates. If your light can't be dimmed, reduce the number of hours it's on each day. Reduce the amount of liquid fertilizers and CO₂ entering the aquarium and add snails or algae-eating fish such as Otocinclus to help control algae.

Driftwood – Many aquarists experience a white to greyish film or "fur" growing on newly installed pieces of driftwood. This is usually a fungus (but sometimes bacteria) and is harmless to you and your fish. You can remove it with a toothbrush, but it may return a few times before disappearing permanently. Another option is to bake or boil the wood or soak it in a mild bleach solution. If you choose the bleach method, rinse and soak the wood in fresh water and cure it outside in direct sunlight before returning it to the aquarium. Nerite snails, Otocinclus and bristlenose plecostomus are known to eat this mold as well. Avoid the use of chemical treatments, as they may have unexpected side-effects.

Cloudy Water – Cloudy water is another common occurrence in newly set up aquariums. Plant-specific substrates or dry nutrient additives can make the water cloudy when you fill the tank, but sometimes it's because the gravel wasn't rinsed thoroughly or just a natural bacteria bloom. In most cases, the water will clear on its own over time with good filtration and sensible stocking and feeding habits. Adding extra carbon to your filter or a bacteria starter can help speed up the clearing process, but carbon may also remove plant nutrients from the water. Be patient, feed sparingly and don't add any new fish until the water clears.

Brown or Tinted Water – A brown tint is very common initially with certain types of driftwood that release tannins into the water. This is beneficial to plants and fish from the Amazon Basin and many parts of southeast Asia, as tannins lower pH and hardness. That said, some hobbyists feel it detracts from the aesthetics of their aquariums. The tea color will dissipate eventually, but frequent small water changes and the use of extra carbon in the filter will help speed up the process. Boiling the wood also helps leach out tannins. Avoid the use of chemical treatments, as they have little effect and may have unexpected side-effects.

Plant Stress – Plants go through stress, especially after being moved from one environment to another. Typical signs of stress are leaves dying or bunch plant stems rotting. Cryptocorynes are notorious for completely disintegrating within days of being re-planted. Be patient, once these plants adapt to their new tank, they will usually recover. Even Crypts that appear to die off completely will come back as long as the root system is intact! Trim mushy stems off bunch plants and replant the solid sections.

Ongoing Maintenance Schedule

Daily Check – 5 minutes

Most aquarists feed their fish in the morning, and this is a good time to do the following:

  • Nutrients – Many manufacturers suggest dosing liquid plant nutrients weekly but splitting the weekly dose up into smaller amounts and dosing daily or every other day ensures optimum plant growth and vibrance.
  • CO₂ – Dose liquid carbon supplements daily, preferably just before the lights come on. If you use a manual CO₂ injection system, open the regulator valve to start the flow of CO₂ about an hour before the tank light comes on and make sure the diffuser is functioning correctly. Close the valve about an hour before the light goes off. If you use static diffuser chambers, fill them about an hour before the lights come on to make sure there is an adequate supply of carbon when your plants start photosynthesizing. If you use an automated system, make sure the solenoid and diffuser are functioning properly.
  • Lighting – Make sure your lighting timer is set correctly and is turning your lights on and off at the proper time.
  • Top-off – Add reverse osmosis or deionized water to compensate for evaporation. (This is necessary for those who do not have a cover on their tank.)

Weekly Maintenance – 1 to 1½ hours

Set time aside each week to do the following:

  • Water Tests – Check water temperature and test for pH, hardness, nitrate and phosphate. Add filter media or increase water changes if nitrate or phosphate levels are on the rise. Many dedicated planted tank enthusiasts also test for iron (Fe) and adjust dosing of liquid plant supplements to maintain proper levels.
  • Algae Removal – Scrape inside glass and remove algae from hardscape with a small brush.
  • Clean Glass Cover – If you have a cover on your tank, keep it spotlessly clean to ensure proper light penetration.
  • Water Exchange – Change 10% to 25% of the water every week. Siphon plant debris off the bottom but avoid vacuuming too deep into the substrate as this may disturb plant roots or solid nutrient materials you may have installed.
  • CO₂ – Check your CO₂ cylinder pressure gauge for fill level and replace the bottle as needed. If your regulator does not have a fill gauge, make sure you have a spare CO₂ bottle on hand, especially if you're nearing the end of its typical lifespan.
  • Groom Plants – This is very therapeutic and is possibly the most rewarding part of owning a planted aquarium.
  • Trim out dead or dying plant leaves on Anubias, Swordplants, Cryptocorynes and other broadleaf plants.
  • Cut and replant bunch plants that are getting too tall or are starting to drop their lower leaves. (This is normal and must be done on a regular basis.) Lower stems rooted in the gravel can be discarded or allowed to grow new branches.
  • Trim mosses, baby tears and other groundcover plants with a scissors, as needed.
  • Harvest surface plants like duckweed, hornwort, Salvinia and Pyllanthus as needed to ensure light penetration to the plants below.
  • Nutrients – Dose liquid plant nutrients and check your supply to make sure you don't run out.
  • Health Check – Check plant leaves for damage, signs of distress or nutrient deficiency (yellowing or holes in the leaves). Inspect your fish for signs of stress, injury or disease.
  • Filter – Check your filter's flow rate and rinse or replace the cartridge or mechanical filter media if it has slowed. Add or replace chemical media if nitrate or phosphate levels are rising.

Monthly Maintenance – 1 to 1½ hours

Perform all your normal weekly maintenance tasks, but here some extra things you can do once per month:

  • CO₂ – Soak ceramic diffuser in vinegar or replace it as needed to ensure good CO₂ flow rate.
  • Nutrients – If you use plant nutrient tablets, replenish them every 4 to 6 weeks.
  • Groom Plants – Reposition, thin out or remove large or fast-growing plants that are starting to overshadow or crowd out smaller or slower-growing species.
  • Add Plants or Fish – You've worked hard, indulge yourself! Take a trip to your local aquarium store and treat yourself to some new plants or that fish you've been thinking of adding. Don't forget to pick up some fertilizer or check out those cool pruning tools you've been eyeing!

Planted aquariums aren't difficult to maintain and spending a little time each week on them can be both relaxing and incredibly rewarding. Have you set yours up yet?

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