Thursday, December 14, 2006

Beginner's Guide to Planted Aquarium Supplies and Equipment

I've decided to try to take a stab at an idea suggested by a visitor and create a shopping list of essential supplies and equipment needed to start and maintain a planted aquarium. As I thought about exactly what was needed, I realized that the supplies and equipment needed depends greatly on one thing: the amount of light in the aquarium. As I've mentioned before, the light in the aquarium is the engine driving the mini-ecosystem. The more light you have, the more equipment and supplies you'll need to keep that ecosystem running smoothly.

All planted aquariums need light, obviously. So the number one item on the list is a light. Lights come in all shapes and sizes and powers (see a guide to making your own cheap high powered lights). How much light you have on your aquarium will determine the rest of the list.

For low light aquariums (1.5-2 watts per gallon unless you have a very small or very large aquarium, then read this post on light in the aquarium) the equipment and supplies needed are minimal. Most are required for any aquarium:
  • Light (at least 1.5 watts per gallon)
  • Filter (biological and mechanical, the plants will take care of chemical)
  • Heater
  • Substrate (can be plain gravel, though not ideal)
That's really all you need. In a bare-bones setup like this, you won't grow fancy plants or even grow things particularly well, but low light plants should survive just fine. As you can see, as long as you have an aquarium with fish already, you will likely only need a better light.

For medium light
aquariums (2-3 watts per gallon) you will start to need to supplement your plants for them to grow healthy:
  • Trace element fertilizer (such as Seachem Flourish or CSM+B)
For high light aquariums (3+ watts per gallon) you must add the following items otherwise your aquarium will quickly become an algae farm:
  • CO2 system or Flourish Excel
  • Nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous fertilizers.
As you increase the amount of light on your aquarium, you increase the demands in terms of fertilizers. Once you get into the high light category, you really need to add fertilizers otherwise the plants will suffer and algae will take over.

It is important to remember, if you add fertilizers or CO2 to a low light aquarium in the proper amounts, you will still see an improvement in growth. There's no rule that says that low light aquariums shouldn't have CO2 or fertilizers. You just have to remember that plants aren't going to grow as quickly and won't need as much fertilization as plants in a high light tank.

As a beginner, I'd recommend starting out with low light and working your way up. Diving straight into a high light aquarium can lead to things quickly spiralling out of control. That, and it's fairly easy to upgrade your aquarium as you go.


  1. Nice list. I have been asked the same thing and you put it together so nicely.

    A few points.

    I haven't used a heater in years, not since I started living in spaces that have a thermostat themselves. Most people keep their houses at the low end of "tropical" fish temperatures. I figure that the aquarium isn't going to be any colder then the room it is in (unless you have a draft, whatever). The tank is going to be a few degrees warmer then the ambient room temperature because of all the heat from the light(s). However, to do things right, the undegravel heaters sound like they make a lot of sense.

    I think you should point out that airpumps & airstones are intentionally NOT on the list when you have a CO2 system. The bubbles will take all that CO2 that you worked so hard to get into the water right back out of it.

    If your on a budget, I would get a tank, a good canister filter, and the substrate (laterite is fairly cheap to add to the plain rock). I would then add the CO2 (~$50 DIY) and then the light ($100+).

  2. Well said. I couldn't say it much better than that. I also learn something new from you again. I can see that you had a very high tendency toward lighting when it come to aquascaping.

    If I may, I would like to add few things that may slip off from this guide. As a beginner, having a thermometer would help tremendously since newbie obviously will be experimenting with the temperature (lighting temperature, water temperature and etc). This item cost a less than a dollar item for aquascaper in Malaysia.

    I also agree with Mike on the usage of airstones for CO2 DIY as it will only take less than an hour to create an air blockage on the airstones itself due to yeast activity. My advise is to opt for cheap glass diffuser or mini glass diffuser if you are planning for small size tank setup. Here they are selling for around 3USD. I believe it much more cheaper in US.

    Last but not least, beginner may want to start with a small size tank or Nano tank as they can play around with different setup of landscape and plant. With this addition, a HOB filter would be more than enough since some might confuse and spend hundreds on canister filter that definitely cos a bomb.

    Cheers & keep up the good work! Looking forward for your next post ;)

    PS/ I'm also a newbie in aquascaping but currently working on my aquascaping blog in a Malay version (that is our national language in Malaysia). Would you mind if I used some of your tips in here and convert it to my language? Of course, I would add a reference link back to the original text.

  3. Hello

    Love your site. I am just starting my research for converting my fish only 90 gal freshwater tank into a planted tank. One problem I am having before I start is temp. I have bought 3 different heaters and none of them keep consistent heat or temps under 82F. I currently have a HYDOR THEO Heater 400W - SUBMERSIBLE HEATER and have the temp set all the way down to 76F but the temp is always 82-83F . I read the manual, left it in the tank for 30-60 mins before plugging in. I thought this was a good brand. Is there a better heater ? Thanks

  4. So many people are turned away from aquarium plants after hearing how they die all the time. This is a good introduction to the aquarium plant supplies needed for a range of plants.

    I also that laterite is a must for healthy lush plants and this tops my list as one of the must haves for success.

  5. i am so lost on this lighting how does one determine wpg? i have a 55 and its lite by 2 15 watts "flora sun" that enough? or do i need more light? and also...i didnt plan on having a planted tank...sooo....i have only gravel...can i just mix in another substrate?

    1. Watts per gallon= wattage of light x number of bulbs / gallons.
      so in you case 15 watts x 2 bulbs = 30 watts. 30 watts / 55 gallons = .54 watts per gallon or 1/2 watt per gallon.

  6. this is very useful information for the beginners to know how to do planting in the aquarium ..i agree the way you have presented the idea to use light combination for the aquarium you use high lights you have to increase the demand of


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