Help!! Switching Substrate and Want Advice! - The Planted Tank Forum
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post #1 of 23 (permalink) Old 05-09-2019, 12:16 PM Thread Starter
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Help!! Switching Substrate and Want Advice!

Okay, so I apologize in advance for the length but I want to be thorough. My tank is a 20 gal high with large inert gravel. Current inhabitants are glowlight tetras and albino corys. For plants I have some java moss/ferns, anubias, micro sword and vallisneria.

I have been researching/reading a ton (and asking a lot of questions on plantedtank) and getting aspects of my tank by piecemeal, but am planning to make some big changes by creating a fully planted aquarium. My lighting is a Beamswork 6500K set on a nicrew timer. My ideal tank has low/medium light plants that I can keep without dosing pressurized CO2. I am currently using a combination of root tabs and seachem flourish.

I do not like the look of black or red substrates (although I know lots of people love it), so BDBS and eco complete are out. At the moment, I am leaning towards flourite dark but I also am playing around with the idea of a dirted tank capped with either flourite or pool filter sand. If it helps, I am planning on spiderwood and slate for hardscapes. Dirt seems easy and cheap, but Tim Barr in a thread mentioned that Flourite/Eco Complete is better long term. Also, since I have inhabitants, I can't use anything that will cause major spikes in ammonia. Finally, I am currently renting an apartment and will most likely be moving in the next couple of years so I don't want to invest a ton or get a set up that would be really difficult to tear down successfully. My main goal, however, is consistent and healthy plant growth.

Does anyone have experience with either substrate and what other types of plants would you recommend for my current tank/lights? I want plan accordingly and order all the plants I want so that I can take out my fish, lay the new substrate and plant everything in one shot.

Thanks for any advice/insight!!!!
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post #2 of 23 (permalink) Old 05-09-2019, 12:27 PM
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Calcined Montmorillonite Clay - Safe-T-Sorb / normal non clumping kitty litter.

Pool Filter sand of your choice.

Any quartz / silica sand that you like the colour of.

Flourite - any colour (too expensive IMO, I'm never using it again)

Regular small grained gravel.

Play sand (messy and can compact)

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post #3 of 23 (permalink) Old 05-09-2019, 02:12 PM Thread Starter
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For flourite, expense aside, did you have luck with it? I don't mind paying a little extra for it in all honesty.

Do you have any experience with dirt?

As for sand, would you recommend pool or aquarium?

Thanks!
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post #4 of 23 (permalink) Old 05-09-2019, 02:21 PM
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For flourite, expense aside, did you have luck with it? I don't mind paying a little extra for it in all honesty.
I do have experience with it, and I hate it.

1) Cost too much for no added value to plants (completely inert with no nutrients)
2) Doesn't look as nice or natural as other options
3) Very low CEC
4) Impossible to plant into

My current tank with Flourite Black:



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Do you have any experience with dirt?
No, but I want to try it out.
1) Super messy
2) Ammonia spikes
3) Will run out of nutrients after a while
4) Can't deep clean it (remove mulm and crud that otherwise feeds algae)

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As for sand, would you recommend pool or aquarium?
Pool or Aquarium specific, doesn't matter. Just choose one that doesn't buffer the water. I kept African's years ago and bought Caribsea sand that buffered the water up for them. It will clearly say on the package if it buffers or not.

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post #5 of 23 (permalink) Old 05-09-2019, 03:00 PM Thread Starter
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Thank you for the detailed reply! I have to be honest, the flourite tank looks incredible! All in all, for ease of planting, scaping and plant growth, what is your go-to substrate?

Also, how do you dose the tanks? Root tabs or water column fertilizer? (Note, I won't be using any CO2 for a long time, if at all)

Sorry for all of the questions, this is my first planted tank and I am trying to learn from others with more experience (such as yourself).

Thanks again!
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post #6 of 23 (permalink) Old 05-09-2019, 03:47 PM
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Thank you for the detailed reply! I have to be honest, the flourite tank looks incredible! All in all, for ease of planting, scaping and plant growth, what is your go-to substrate?

Also, how do you dose the tanks? Root tabs or water column fertilizer? (Note, I won't be using any CO2 for a long time, if at all)

Sorry for all of the questions, this is my first planted tank and I am trying to learn from others with more experience (such as yourself).

Thanks again!
Mine go to would be a cheap sand (pool filter sand, BDBS, play sand etc.), or an aquarium specific sand if I really want a specific look.

I dose water column only in the tank above. I go water column and root tabs in my lower tech tank.

We are on these forums to ask questions, don't be sorry!
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post #7 of 23 (permalink) Old 05-09-2019, 03:50 PM
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+1 on the Saf-T-Sorb.

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post #8 of 23 (permalink) Old 05-09-2019, 06:04 PM
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I like safe-t-sorb, too. It's cheap. It looks natural. It has high cation capacity. You do need to sift out the dust and/or rinse before you use it, and I soaked mine with baking soda to avoid pH swings- but if I had to redo a tank, would use it again.


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post #9 of 23 (permalink) Old 05-09-2019, 06:09 PM
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I soaked mine with baking soda to avoid pH swings
Does that not "fill up" the CEC with carbonates + gH? Does this block the exchange of other nutrients?

Filling up CEC with kH + gH and being at equilibrium with the tap water kH / gH? I have very hard water and want to try out calcined Montmorillonite clay but won't bother if the CEC is dominated by carbonates, calcium and magnesium.

@Seattle_Aquarist do you have anything to say on this matter?
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post #10 of 23 (permalink) Old 05-09-2019, 10:13 PM
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@Quagulator, that's a very good question. I don't know the answer. I had the impression that the Montmorillonite would absorb a certain amount of carbonates, but still have capacity to absorb other nutrients. I'm not sure where I got that idea, or if it's correct. I also have very hard water. So I used baking soda to buffer the water, so it wouldn't strip calcium out of the water column and cause pH to jump around. That's as far as I understand it.

I added baking soda and tested pH before and after, until it quit changing drastically and leveled out. It seemed to work. But I admit I have limited understanding of it. Hope someone else chimes in to explain.


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post #11 of 23 (permalink) Old 05-09-2019, 11:45 PM
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Does that not "fill up" the CEC with carbonates + gH? Does this block the exchange of other nutrients?

Filling up CEC with kH + gH and being at equilibrium with the tap water kH / gH? I have very hard water and want to try out calcined Montmorillonite clay but won't bother if the CEC is dominated by carbonates, calcium and magnesium.

@Seattle_Aquarist do you have anything to say on this matter?
Hi @Quagulator,

CEC is "a calculated value that is an estimate of the soils ability to attract, retain, and exchange cation elements." In other words the higher the CEC the more nutrients it can hold.

I think the key here is the "E" in CEC which stands for "exchange". Cations are constantly being absorbed by the plants from the substrate and replaced with cations in the nutrient solution.

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post #12 of 23 (permalink) Old 05-10-2019, 01:15 AM Thread Starter
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Wow. Tons of great info here!

I was also considering an aqua soil (thin layer, maybe half an inch( with a fine gravel/sand cap of about 1.5-2 inches. I’ve heard differing opinions on whether sand is easy to clean or not. Some say it is and other say quite the opposite.

I like the look of sand but since I’m starting from scratch thought about an aqua soil base to give rooted plants a little boost. Thoughts? Do aqua soils also cause ammonia spikes like dry potting soil would?

I ordered a bag of flourite dark on amazon and I like the color but am unsure how I feel about the consistency. It seems a little jagged and rough. I do like the idea of it having better CEC than inert sand or gravel though since I know regardless of aqua soil base or not? I’ll need to dose for my rhzysome plants (java ferns and Anubias)

If I do a really thin layer of aqua soil and a substantial cap (not too deep to where I risk dead zones) would I really have to worry about dirt breaching the cap? For what it’s worth I’m ordering Malaysian trumpet snails to handle substrate algae and keep it aerated.

Last question for tonight (I’m sure more tomorrow) I’m also planning on ramshorn snails since I’ve heard they are great for surface and glass algae as well as decaying plant matter. Do you have any experience with them? I’ve heard people claim they eat love plants but the overall consensus seems that they tend to leave live plants alone.
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post #13 of 23 (permalink) Old 05-10-2019, 12:26 PM
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Wow. Tons of great info here!

I was also considering an aqua soil (thin layer, maybe half an inch( with a fine gravel/sand cap of about 1.5-2 inches. I’ve heard differing opinions on whether sand is easy to clean or not. Some say it is and other say quite the opposite.

I like the look of sand but since I’m starting from scratch thought about an aqua soil base to give rooted plants a little boost. Thoughts? Do aqua soils also cause ammonia spikes like dry potting soil would?

I ordered a bag of flourite dark on amazon and I like the color but am unsure how I feel about the consistency. It seems a little jagged and rough. I do like the idea of it having better CEC than inert sand or gravel though since I know regardless of aqua soil base or not? I’ll need to dose for my rhzysome plants (java ferns and Anubias)

If I do a really thin layer of aqua soil and a substantial cap (not too deep to where I risk dead zones) would I really have to worry about dirt breaching the cap? For what it’s worth I’m ordering Malaysian trumpet snails to handle substrate algae and keep it aerated.

Last question for tonight (I’m sure more tomorrow) I’m also planning on ramshorn snails since I’ve heard they are great for surface and glass algae as well as decaying plant matter. Do you have any experience with them? I’ve heard people claim they eat love plants but the overall consensus seems that they tend to leave live plants alone.
I would not layer substrates, they will mix eventually. Aqua soil will release tons of ammonia.

Since you are dosing the water column already, I would not use a nutrient rich substrate. Just dose the water column. Flourite has little - no CEC, and yes is it jagged and anoying / hard to plant into because of that.

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post #14 of 23 (permalink) Old 05-10-2019, 01:28 PM Thread Starter
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So would you recommend just sand or fine gravel with tabs and water column dosing?

For sand I’ve read 2-3” is best to avoid anaerobic buildup. I was thinking about sprinkling opened osmocote tablets in a thin layer under the sand/gravel and in the sand to get thinks a little fertilized from the get go.

Along with flourish and root tabs is here anything else you would recommend? I want easy to manage and light-medium light plants.
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post #15 of 23 (permalink) Old 05-10-2019, 01:29 PM Thread Starter
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I was thinking something like this might bridge the gap in particle size between sand and gravel.

Carib Sea ACS00832 Peace River Gravel for Aquarium, 20-Pound https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0002APMU6/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_zYx1Cb4CV3JYD
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