Lessons learned in the first month
I’m sure that I am contributing nothing new here and could have learned most of this with more careful reading on this excellent site. But, here it is anyway. I wanted to set up a 20 gallon planted fresh water tank to enjoy with my granddaughter after a long time away from the hobby. I especially wanted healthy plant growth which was a problem for me in the past. I decided I needed improvements in the substrate, light and CO2 areas. I used a bag of Flourite covered with old aquarium gravel. I had read that 3 watts of light per gallon along with CO2 insertion improved plant growth. I couldn’t find a 20 gallon light fixture in my price range with that much output and opted for a very nice 55-watt compact fluorescent light kit for which I made an oak housing. I had trouble getting my DIY CO2 started and the planted crypts and swords clearly objected to the overly bright light. Fortunately a wiring change reduced the lamp output to 40 watts which is working better, although the beautiful little parva crypts look like they will never fully recover and the melon sword continues to produce short stemmed red leaves compared with the tall green ones it came with. The ambulia, cardamine, lloydiella and beautiful little Lutea Crypt (shaded by ambulia) all seem to be doing well. The vallisneria came looking pretty ratty and looks like it will lose most of its original leaves but is putting up nice new ones. Lesson 1: match your light power to the plants you intend to use. The plant supplier substituted Aponogeton sub lilvacias for the A. crispus I ordered. While it is amazing, it currently overwhelms my tank (2 flower heads already) and will need a new home on its next tuber cycle. Lesson 2: Specify no plant substitutes. The plants came with the eggs of brown, conical-shelled snails. They don’t seem to be harming the plants yet, but are growing and multiplying. A future decision is (less) snails versus otos depending upon the algae situation. So far the tank has been amazingly algae-free, maybe thanks to the snails. I’ve been adding 3 ml of Flourish weekly after 15% water changes. The tank went through a very mild nitrogen cycle and I was able to start incrementally adding fish after two weeks without NH3 or NO2 rebound. The current population is 6 neons, 6 glowlights, two sunset gouramis and two cory julii. All seem spunky and in good health. I’m having trouble feeding the Julii without the gouramis pushing them away from their pellets. Hopefully they get the ones I drop after the lights go out at night.
My DIY CO2 was late in producing (maybe a factor with the initial plant decline under bright light). Lesson 3: get your CO2 running before the plants arrive. I generally followed John LeVasseur’s excellent DIY tutorial. Despite using the recommended nylon bulkhead fittings I still had minor leaks at the hose connections which were resolved using small nylon tie-wraps. I am using Fleischmann’s Active Dry yeast and wasn’t getting much CO2. I found that placing a 25 watt light bulb next to the bottle to warm it significantly improved output. I initially powered the tank light, 25 watt bulb and the CO reactor on a common timer being concerned about too much CO2 at night. However the fish seem fine in the morning if I run it continuously so that is what I do now. pH and KH measurements confirmed that was safe, although both have dropped a little and the charts would suggest that I am not really increasing the tank’s dissolved CO2. The plants are definitely happier, so I’ll stop looking at the tables. Or maybe new plants naturally go through a period of decline as they acclimate before recovering. I was going to make a DIY CO2 reactor based upon Mr. LeVasseur’s design, but by the time I added up the cost of its components, I opted for a commercial unit that seems to be working OK. It swirls the CO2 in a little vortex to help dissolve it. I may regret that purchase decision however when its pump eventually fails. The formula of 2 cups H2O, 2 cups of sugar in a 2 liter bottle leaves a lot of air space to be vacated. On the next batch I am going to ratio the formula up to more fully fill the bottle. An additional check valve at the output of the yeast bottle seems to help keep the system charged with CO2 when changing bottles, especially if using a gas separator bottle.
I’m pretty happy with the tank now as the plants have mostly turned around and the fish seem happy. I may add a few more fish if things remain stable; probably several pristella or phantoms. Comments and suggestions welcomed!