I'm on the planted tank fence.

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Mar 23, 2005
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I'm really considering jumping into a planted tank system with both feet. I'm pretty indecisive and not rich, so I may not jump but either way it's fun for me to talk, learn, and basically gather information about; this way when I do, I'll have a better idea of what I'm doing. Sometimes I think I enjoy reading/discussing/shopping as much as the hobby itself, so I love searching for deals and bargains when it comes to anything (aka...I'm a cheap a$$). This frugality engourages me to take advantage of the more simple DIY projects.

I have been exchanging PMs with a few of you and just thought I'd start this thread as a repository for all the info I've been wondering about. Throughout this post you'll find numbered questions for clarity, if you feel like taking a stab at one, tell me which question you're answering unless it's already obvious.

Perhaps knowing a little about my tastes will help guide your advice: I have and plan on continuing to have a community tank usually filled with less aggressive cichs (2 krib and 2 brichardi) 4 loaches ( 3 clown and 1 yo yo) 3 corys, 6 rasboras, 3 gouramis, a clown pleco, and a red tail shark. I don't have snails and none of these fish are renowned plant killers.

As far as plants go, I am looking to grow glosso. I really like the carpet look and hope to get the tank to a point where significant chunks of it are covered. I'd also like to keep a thin border of gravel around each plant, sort of like a japanese rock garden would appear...each plant its own "exhibit." I'm also a sucker for driftwood and rock formations.

My setup: I have my Dad's old 55 gal long (four foot long and what? 1'6" thick from front to back and maybe 2.5-3 feet deep from top to bottom) that used to be a SW tank, but is now a FW tank. My tap water is 7.6 out of the tap and usually tests between moderate and very hard. I use an HOB powerfilter and a cannister filter in a 10 gall sump tank underneath.

If I get a CO2 system, it will be pressurized. Almost everyone has told me that if you're going to do it, this is the way to go especially with a tank as big as a 55 gal. I don't have anything for this but would probably enjoy making my own diffuser (Edit: Actually it was a reactor wasn't it) like Sparky did. That looked really great and well done and effective. Q1: What is the difference between a reactor and a diffuser.

As far as lights go, I already have my dad's old saltwater light housing and bulbs, only one bulb works. The bulbs are 18 inches long, half actinic, and 65 watts. They have a wierd prong that only has two brass colored prongs coming out. Q0: What kind of lights are these and is it possible to buy replacement bulbs that fit within this housing or do you suggest scrappin it and getting a whole new setup? I'm really leaning towards getting two 2x55watt setup offered by AH supply. This four-foot stip (two 2-foot strips) of lighting will fit my tank nicer than the three foot 2x96 watt setup. I don't know what kind of bulbs to get though. Q2: What do you suggest, CF, HO (Q3: what does HO stand for, an abbreviation of VHO?)

Currently I have a somewhat thin (maybe 1.5 inches) substrate cover of typical brown gravel. Q4: Would I need to get rid of this substrate altogther and replace it with a 100% plant-grade substrate, or would mixing in another substrate suffice? I'm not totally against having a red substrate but would probably prefer to avoid it.

Q5: What is up with the timing? This question seeks to find out if I need to fire up my new lights/co2system/add plants/ and start dosing ferts all in the same day? Or should I add one thing at a time, one thing before another, one plant at a time etc.? I'd really like to avoid stressing my fish too much during the changeover.

I've read a lot so you can tailor your comments to someone with some academic knowledge of growing plants (scoured badmans, rex griggs' and other websites), but with absolutely zero experience (other than my no-work-required anubias and java fern).

The think I'm most scared of is the CO2 and chemicle dosing aspects of a planted tanks. I hate test strips and I dunno If I just can't tell color or what but I can never get a comfortably precise measurement of my levels of stuff by guaging shades of color. I think to stay on the simpler/safer side of things, I might follow the EI method I've learned about. Seems like a safe bet for a newb. Any and all help is appreciated.

Oh and if you're using a plant name, please just include the full name (just once) before you start abbreviating it. The only plants I know by name are anubias, java fern and moss, vals, swords, hygro and glosso.
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A1: Not much. The naming generally differentiates between passive and active diffusion. CO2 Reactors generally have some sort of mechanical means of breaking up the CO2 bubbles and forcing them to diffuse.

A0: If the bulbs are bent in a U shape they are likely power compacts like you are looking to buy. You should be able to buy replacements, you'll just need to pay attention to whether the fixture has the four pins in a straight line or in a square.

A2: The 4 x 55 watt would work well. However if you can get both bulbs on your current fixture up and running this would allow you to delay the upgrade and give you more time to save up for everything you'll need.

A3: HO = High Output, VHO = Very High Output, generally these bulbs put out more light but are shorter lived.

A4: You'd want the plant substrate to be at least 50% of your substrate to be of benefit. Personally I prefer my aquariums where I completely replaced the substrate instead of mixing. There are plenty of substrate options that aren't red. Eco Complete and Turface MVP are both black/charcoal grey. Pool Filter Sand comes in a variety of colors depending on where you are. The list goes on.

A5: CO2 will need to come at the same time or before the lighting upgrade. Plants should be added at the same time as the lights if they're more demading than your current setup provides, otherwise they can be added earlier. Plant heavily including fast growing stem plants when you first start. This will help provide a cushion while the tank adjusts to the higher light and you adjust to it's new care. Increased fertilization is usually necessary within a couple weeks of providing more light and CO2. They usually take a little while to adapt after shipping or being in the care of an LFS that doesn't understand caring for plants. I'd make sure to have the ferts on hand before starting the rest of the upgrades, so that you can dose as soon as it's needed. You can also simply start an EI dosing routine as soon as the upgrades are complete and the plants added.

Ditch the test strips and get a quality liquid test kit. You'll get more reliable results. The SeaChem Phosphate test is highly recommended as highly accurate, almost as good as the high grade kits. Either Hagen or API would be good for the rest of the kits (Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, pH, KH). Don't bother looking for Potassium or Iron test kits as they don't make a hobby grade kit accurate enough for our use.

Another great tool that is inexpensive is a drop checker. You'll want to fill it with a KH reference solution (despite what the instructions might say) and then it will give you a reading of your CO2 at a glance. It takes a lot of the guess work out of CO2 and will help with your confidence that everything is going well with it.

Steve Hampton is another great resource that I highly recommend reading if you haven't already.

For fert dosing calcs I recommend downloading Chuck Gadd's Calculator for the core ferts and using our very own czcz's calculator for traces.
The following was quoted from Steve Hampton's page about lighting:

You'll note that I've got a gap from 2 to 3 watts per gallon. In my experience tanks that fall within that gap are the most difficult to manage. People tend to not use CO2 but try to grow more light demanding plants and balance is more elusive. I'm certain people find success within that range, but personally I've found the two extremes...low light and high light to be much more predictable and the results more repeatable.

I found that pretty interesting. Seems he suggests avoiding the tempting situation of jumping to a medium light tank while not messin with CO2. Everyone says CO2 will even help low light tanks. I get it, and can sympathize with how tempting it is to try to get what you can out of better lights and cheap ferts w/out getting into CO2 (which it seems will inevitably end up in CO2 stunted growth).

EDIT: Okay I did some shopping on my lunch break and found out some prices, I'm going to attempt to lay out a budget so I can get a good idea of what exactly this transition would cost me:

CO2 Cannister $62 and fill $11.25: (cheapest I could find locally) = $73.25
Milwaukee valve, solenoid, bubble counter & needle valve = $100
AH Supply 4 55 watt lights: $142.44
Substrate: ??????
Plants: ????????
DIY CO2 reactor: $25

Only including the things I have an accurate idea of a price: $340.69. This assumes I can get the AH supply lights into my existing fixture, so I may need to add another 30 or 40 bucks for the lights, and how much would you guess the substrate, plants, and chems would run?

Ugh...the more I look the more it seems it is simply not financially feasible for me now.
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Even after I was "warned", I was surprised at the expense of a pressurized system. It's all in the initial layout, though, and then all you'd pay for are CO2 refills (and hope the regulator lasts a few years or more!) The tank I got yesterday was $75 but you get your first fill free.

Substrate price varies with the brand and what kind you get: Eco-Complete or Fluorite, sand or regular gravel, etc.

Consider having a low-light tank until the higher light/CO2 becomes more feasible. I agree with Purrbox that if you got your current light usable, you could save up for the light you want. You can still use actinic over a planted tank, but the plants don't use the actinic spectrum. So your usable light would only be from the other bulb, the 65 watt bulb. This will give you low enough light so that not using CO2 will be feasible. What does the other (non-actinic) bulb say on it? Does it have a K number? (look at it before it turns on for the day, otherwise it will be too hot to touch). You could always call a company like AH Supply or Hello Lights and describe the pin structure and see what they have that would fit.
Cost of Substrate, Plants?

Okay so I get that the substrate costs within a certain range (cheaper end filter sand w/ higher end being the good stuff) but what is the range? 50-70 or more or less? I really have no idea how much I'd need.

What is the surface area of a 55 gall? It's:

48 inches long
20 inches tall
and 13 inches wide ( or is front to back called "depth")

It has been a LOOOOONG time since geometry but isn't surface area (length x width) so

48x20 = 960 inches. Dunno why I just did that as you don't really need to know the surface area to firgure how much substrate you'd need, just keep adding until I get what 3-4 inches? How many lbs is this and how much is it?

And what would plants cost? I stopped by my LFS and looked around, the prices weren't too bad, but considering that it is advisable to plant HEAVILY, right from the get-go (as soon as co2 and lights and ferts are fired up) I figure around $50 for about 10 new plants (most were around 6 or 7 but some were only 3 or 4 (don't forget I already have two anubias nanas and one java fern in there already). Maybe I could shave some off of this by ordering online?

So at the end of the day, It's probably more like $450!? $***, I might as well move to SW. But ahhh...then there is the big difference that this is basically a one time investment, once and done. Replacement plants and chems and co2 refills are really cheap. In fact, you could probably get multiple orders of each for the cost of ONE SW fish. No way could I afford that.

Perhaps the smart move is to get into it gradually. Hmm...perhaps my pappy's old addage "anything worth doing is worth doin right!" doesn't apply to jumping into planted tanks with both feet. I wouldn't feel so tempted if the other friggin light worked, but as of now only half my tank is lit with one 65 watt bulb, I know it works b/c I switched sides and it lit up, so it must be a connection or wiring problem.

It says it's a PowerCompact 65w SmartLamp, from CustomSeaLife, Inc. (the co. dissolved). I really have no idea what to do. I tried once to fix the connection but couldnt really tell what was wrong with it, everything looked fine. The bulb has four prongs placed in a square (not in a line) pretty close together where it plugs in, then two white cylinders extend out and (it is 22" long), and has the glass melted at the end of each tube connecting them together. I'd love to get it workin again to get 130 watts over the tank. One side shines blueish and is probably useless-actinic (lights were originally for my pop's SW tank) so who knows how much usable light is getting to the plants. I wonder if it would be cheaper for me to just get the fixture fixed somewhere. I don't know if it's a ballast issue or what, nor do I have any clue where to call or take it to get it looked at.

Oh and BTW, Sorry my posts are so long and thanks for all your help.:hat:
Turface MVP IS good stuff, just not marketed for aquariums. It's also very popular for Bonsai trees. It doesn't have to be marketed for aquariums and/or expensive to be good. I'd guess you'd need about 2 bags (100lbs), which would cost $20. You can do a google search for substrate calculators for a rough guess (It's fairly comparable to Flourite or Onyx sand for size and weight). I'm currently using Turface MVP in three of my four aquairums and I'm planning to switch over the 4th eventually.

For plants you should check the barter trade section come spring. Once things warm up you'll be able to get trimmings from other hobbiests dirt cheap. Right now it's too cold to ship from a lot of areas.

Your current fixture is the same type that you're looking to DIY. Power Compact and Compact Fluorescent are used interchangably even though they do technically refer to slightly different lighting. How old are the bulbs? Could it just be a bad bulb? Do you have a fish club in your area? There might be a member that is experiance with fixing light fixtures and would be happy to teach you.

This a picture of whats going on in the fixture that does not work. I know the both bulbs work on the other side. As you can see, you can tell the lights and fixture were used in a SW tank for some time and cuased corrosion. Maybe this is the culprit. There is some greenish wire with metal exposed above the orange wire-nut on the right. I assume this is the ground...does it need to be touching other metal, or is it supposed to just hang lose like that?

Boy would I like to be able to swap in some higher wattage bulbs in the same setup to save some major dough.

Thanks for the suggestions Purr, but no fishclub in my area. Nor have I ever heard of an aquarium plant swap or auction or anything like that.
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I suspect you're right about the corrosion and exposed wire, but unfortunately I don't know enough about wiring to give you advice on fixing it. Hopefully some other members that have DIY'd their lighting can chime in and help you out.

You wouldn't be able to put higher watt bulbs in this fixture, but if they were swapped out for 65 watt bulbs without any actinic then you would be have a nice amount of light over the aquarium.
Well I have certainly learned alot in this thread, and I really can't thank you enough An t-iasg and Purrbox for giving me such personalized advice.

I was serious when I warned of my indecision. I really over think things sometimes and just like to have lots of different opinions from lots of different sources. With planted tanks especially there seems to be some differences of opinion, but w/ enough reading, some commonalities seem to shine through.

AH supply's fixtures are the four pronged ones in a straight line, and my bulbs are four pronged square so I dunno if they'd have em but I plan on calling Monday.

An t-iasg are you part of the GPAS?
Here is another Pittsburgh area club that you may like, a planted tank club: PAPAS Index

I think they meet in Baldwin. The GPASI meets in Oakland. I know Tim from PAPAS but I am not a member of either club, unfortunately.

It's good to see you doing all this research! Planted tanks are great but they do require some cash up front and a commitment to plant care afterwards.
Well I just spent the past 90 minuts messing with my light.

I sort of wanted to get to a point where I would either fix it, or know for sure it wouldnt work. Unfortunately I got to the latter, It (the one fixture) is just completely busted and the rest of the set-up is so old and corroded and (now) the reflector is bent and most of teh screws are stripped. Time for new lights. I still have the one working, so the right side of the tank is at least lit but I know the other will never work now.

It definitely sounds like I
want to go with Seachem Flourite Black as a substrate. Comments? thoughts? I have the typical gravel(dunno if its coated or not) one would find in most aquariums. I'd
need to remove this completely right? It wouldn't be good for the
plants if I were to mix it 50/50 w/ flourite would it?

As far as my lights (well..."light", singular) go, the current bulbs are half actinic, so doesthis mean that it is only producing half the watts/lumens (since
plants can't use actinic light)? I'm kind of pissed that Coral Sea Life (the company my dad got em from) dissolved. The bulbs have a four squar pin set up. I really don't know of any places that I could even take it to and have it
fixed, nor do I know if this would even be cheaper or a better option
than starting new w/ AHsupply's 4x55 setup. I'd feel comfortable
setting up new 4x55s, but fixing my current lights is beyond my

If I were to get a regulator/solenoid/bubble counter combo, where would you suggest buying it? Bigals, DrsFosterSmith, RexGrigg's hand-made one???
I'm nailing down my budget as I learn:

CO2 Cannister $62 and fill $11.25: (cheapest I could find locally) = $73.25
Milwaukee valve, solenoid, bubble counter & needle valve = $78
Seachem Flourite Substrate: $40?
Plants: $40
DIY CO2 reactor: $25
Chemicals: $25?
Lights: (Odyssea at $110, or Coralife at $220, or AHSupply at $250ish)
Quality liquid testing kit: $30?
Total: $503.25

As before, please tell me if anything seems high or low. I'm also still looking to find out:
Q1: What is the best place to buy the regulator/solenoid/bubble counter combo?
Q2: People's opinions on whether going with the high end lights (Ahsupply or Coralife) is better than taking advantage of the savings (about half the price) by going with Odyssea is worth it.
Q3: For FW purposes, is it accurate to say a 65w 50/50 10,000k/actinic bulb only produces half the usable light (32.5w).
Q4: People's opinions on mixing my existing river gravel with a new black flourite base. I think it would look cool but dunno what it would mean for the plant's roots/nutrients.
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Q1) Ebay you can get for a little cheaper, about $90 shipped
Q2) I think you'll be unhappy with the odyssea lighting. Lighting is the one thing you don't want to skimp on a planted tank
Q3) Yes, actinic lighting isn't in the usable spectrum for plant growth
I just purchased a new Milwaukee regulator here ($78) - click on Aquarium Regulators on the right:

Co2 Tanks Canisters Regulators and Paintball Tanks Homebrew Beer

I agree with neilanh - I've seen some of the odyssea lighting and it certainly doesn't compare with Coralife or Current.

I don't think you can go wrong with AH Supply, Coralife, or Current. I have used both Coralife and Current lighting. The Coralife case is metal, and the Current case is plastic, so it doesn't get as hot. Neither of my lights came with a fan. The Current legs are a little easier to attach.
Great responses, just what I was looking for. But what about Q4 (about mixing gravel w/ flourite)?

So now it's between Current/Coralife/Ahsupply. Decisions decisions. I'd just LOVE to find one on craigslist or the classifieds but so far no luck. If I could shave off $100 that way it would really help.
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