I didn't read through the replies (not enough time right now), but here's how I would make the switch:
Pick up a good substrate and get rid of your fake/plastic stuff. Take out all of your current gravel. You should probably try and empty your tank and put your fish in a temporary place. Last time I did this, I moved my fish in to old Coolwhip containers (with lids to reduce stress, and also filled with existing tank water). Once you get most of the water out, adding your new substrate is a piece of cake. Be sure to rinse it well, if it's needed (I use fluorite, thus it needs a good rinsing). I like my mix of fluorite and silica sand, 50/50 with a 3" bed, but you can use whatever you want.
Now, assuming you have the standard light for a 55 gallon, you're at roughly .75 WPG
. Not a lot at all. You don't want to just jump in and go much over 2.5 WPG
without thinking about CO2
, at the least. You have two options. My personal suggestion would be to pick up the fixture you're looking at. Keep it 50/50 with the actinic lights. This will give you just 96 watts of usable lights for your plants (about 1.75 WPG
Now you can start your planting. With the setup I have explained, you should be able to keep most plants from the low to the mid (and maybe mid-high) range. Work with these plants, get to know them and the concept of the Planted Tank.
Once comfortable, swap out the 96W Actinic lights with standard lights. This will pump you to the 3.5WPG mark, which is more than enough light for just about anything. DO NOT DO THIS WITHOUT WORKING ON THE NEXT PARAGRAPH.
To go with your upgraded lights, you're going to need CO2
, no doubts about it. You can easily get by with DIY CO2
, until you can get a pressurized system up and running. Do a search on it for more information.
With the CO2
pumping, you're well on your way. It's now time to start thinking about test kits and fertilizers to get the most from your plants. Standard kits needed are pH, kH
, nitrate, and phosphate. Greg Watson is the king of fertilizers and for about $30, you can get a year supply of fertilizers. Just starting out, I would do a search for Tom Barr's EI (Estimative Index) for a dosing regiment.
There's not much more to the planted tank than what I have explained. You can probably stop at the 1.75WPG mark without CO2
and fertilizers and be just happy with a lush planted tank. If you want a full, high-light, high-tech tank, then 3+ WPG
, and Ferts is the way to go.
Hope that helps!
These are my personal opinions. There are other solutions and options (like Flourish Excel in place of CO2
[note that it won't be enough to really make your plants THRIVE though]).
In regards to losing your beneficial bacteria when removing the gravel, don't worry about it. Your filter media will probably hold more than enough bacteria. Besides that, when you add in the plants, they will probably be more effective and efficient than the bacteria you had on your gravel. It's been stated, and proven, that a planted tank can actually be set up without needing to be "cycled", in traditional terms. I wouldn't worry too much about getting a mini-cycle in your tank.