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That darn Planted Tank
Part 1: My Brief History

text and photographs by Erik Olson
April 1997

This is the first of a series in which I'll detail the setup of a big planted tank. I'll be focusing on one single aspect each month, such as lighting, fertilization, aquascaping, etc. But for this month, I figured I'd just do a bit of background.

In May of 1996, my then-girlfriend convinced me it was time to finally set up a replacement for my big planted tank which had been set up for almost three years. Some of you know about this tank; I called it the ``Almost Affordable Aquarium'' and I did a large hyperlinked article on about it on the web back in ' can still be found online. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself; the ``AAA'' was actually my third generation planted tank, and I'd already made several improvements over the first two...

My First Planted Tank

My first planted tank was a 20-gallon acrylic which I bought at a thrift store. In the two years it was my main tank, I first replaced its hood with a custom-built two-bulb canopy, eventually expanding to three. I went from 1/2 inch of fake blue gravel to 3 inches of natural-looking gray speckled stuff (via some unfortunate nasty side trips with some things you should never put in your tank). I ripped out my undergravel filter, and replaced it with a floss-carbon box filter, and eventually moved from airpump to powerhead. Oddly, the first powerhead I bought was a Hagen 802, which is the largest of that series. Can you imagine actually using an industrial-strength pump in a 20-gallon tank? Five years later, I can't! What I remember, though, is that my crypts grew extremely well under the heavy water current (even though the fish hated it).

[Photo of Tank 2]
First planted tank
, shortly before its demise due to red brush algae

The corner really turned when I started with CO2. One of my housemates gave me a 5 pound cylinder for free (which I now know to be a value of $60 or more!), and I whipped up the rest of the parts from local stores. I also added Dupla laterite balls to the substrate, not wishing to rip it all out and start fresh. Suddenly I had good lush growth, and was able to start keeping red plants healthy. Aside from the occasional algae plague, the biggest problem was space. I felt obliged to buy every new plant I saw, and they were getting pretty crowded in a 20. (I can't even imagine how some folks in the club can keep a single 10!) This led me to the Fish TV.

The Fish TV: My Second Planted Tank

[Fish TV]

A few months after I had CO2 bubbling in the first tank, I was driving my VW around the Maple Leaf area near my house, and ran across a decrepit 1970's console TV set with a sign saying ``Free'' on it, and couldn't resist (even though it was only a cheesy 1970's plastic-and-laminate approximation of the former glory of the 1960's fine wood consoles)... I took it into the basement, pulled out the electronics, converted the top into a flip-top lid with a piano hinge, and built into it a custom acrylic 30-gallon tank with black back.

Unlike the ``widescreen'' view of the 20-long, I had to maintain the 3:4 aspect ratio of the original TV, so I got a nice tall tank, perfect for giant hygro and the like. During this time, I went through a sort of ``Pothead phase,'' so-called because I'd just read an article by Dorothy Reimer about how she potted all of her plants to make them easier to transport. I did the same, mixing gravel and potting soil in the lower half, and just gravel in the upper half. I tell you, what I got was ultimately an anaerobic mess; I switched to gravel and pseudo-laterite in the bottom half, or just gravel in many cases. I still pot some plants today, but never in display tanks.

I also went through a ``cheap gravel at all costs'' phase, ending up with silica blast sand, which is an ugly white sand that has the feel of tiny glass shards. It's no wonder I killed off so many cories during this time.

Like the first tank, I gradually added more and more fluorescent fixtures (I had four 24'' tubes when I moved). I also added CO2 injection after a couple months of growing only boring plants. Since I didn't want to buy another whole setup, I tapped a second needle valve in a ``tee'' off my original setup, and ran about fifteen feet of airline to the TV in the other room!

The Fish-TV was usually more fun to watch than the TV itself; to this day it still ranks as my absolute favorite project of the tanks I've built. (I also made a little 1-gallon black & white companion TV for black neon tetras, and black & white plastic plants). Alas, the TV was too damn bulky to move into my new apartment, so I ended up selling it for a ridiculous $150 (which about covered the cost of the acrylic and certainly none of my work in creating it) to a friend of one of my former housemates; I heard through e-mail that it's now being used as a reptile vivarium.

Number Three

Still antsy for a ``big'' tank, I planned my next aquarium. It was the summer of `93 and I was getting ready to move. This time I would learn from the first two tanks, and do it ``right''. I spent the summer gathering the pieces I needed. On a car trip to California, I picked up some nice Lake Shasta red clay (which to this day has been the least water-clouding stuff I've ever used). I also got 100 pounds of gravel at a California fish store. I bought a Dupla heating cable mail-order, and found a transformer to drive it at the local Radio Shack. I bought a used 55-gallon tank, built a cheap wood stand to fit it, and stored both in my bedroom all summer. When the move happened, I was able to set up the new tank, and then move the contents of my old tanks in a few days later; much less pressure than having to do it in one step.

[Photo of AAA tank]

Things never go as you expect, of course. The 55 turned out to be a 45, only 12 inches front-to-back. The stand was barely narrow enough to hold a 10-gallon tank underneath as a sump. And the CO2 injection system (bubbles directly in the powerhead intake) was just not efficient enough.

I won't talk in too much detail on this tank, since I've written about it before and much of the upcoming parts will focus on similar details in the newest one, but to make a long story short... it became a quite nice tank in the end. I used four 4-foot bulbs over the tank, built a CO2 reactor, installed an overflow-sump system, and kept the plant species down to a reasonable number.

The goal was to put together a good medium-tech tank under a grad student's budget, and it succeeded. In the intervening three years, I've gotten a job and no longer have the student salary restraints; this, of course, made me start glancing towards the skinny tank in the corner, with thoughts of how I could build something better...

Next: Choosing the right tank, building the stand.
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This page was last updated 29 October 1998