eRodent > Tropical Aquarium > Planted Aquarium Maintenance.

Maintaining my new planted aquarium.

This page is about the maintenance I am doing on my tropical aquarium. This is an area that caused me a lot of confusion when I started, with much conflicting advice. I ended up making my own decisions, some good, some bad, and playing it a bit by ear. The tank is now 11 months old and I've had no real disasters with it.

Fish In
The aquarium at the just cycled and first fish in stage

Water Changes

The most irritating part of aquarium maintenance for me has to be water changes - I really do not enjoy lugging water around the house in buckets. Added to that the fact that I have poor water pressure, meaning they fill up really slowly, and elderly pipes so I don't trust my hot water, means I had to find the most straight forwards way to do them.

Deciding the percentage water change was difficult - read around a lot and you'll find quite a lot of people telling you to do ridiculous things such as daily 50% water changes with planted tanks. Well this might be practical with a 50l tank but it sure isn't for me with 220+. I also figure that the larger the water change the more likely you are to cause problems with your fish due to introducing something with the water. Having had to do some large water changes due to medication I've also found that the fish don't seem to appreciate it and because the phosphates in my tap water are high it causes algae outbreaks. The advice given on the Tropica plants I bought said 25% water change fortnightly and I decided to split that into a weekly 10-15% water change - over time this has sort of settled to nearer 40l-50l (about 20%).

Wanting to prepare the water properly before changing it I have purchased myself a 30l food grade plastic open topped barrel from Water Butts 'n' Bottles which actually contains about 35-40l. I can fill the barrel and add the water conditioners and a spare Rena 200W Smart Heater in the morning and it's all ready when I get home from work.

I'm using Stress Coat+ to remove Chlorine and Chloramines and StressZyme. StressZyme apparently "speeds the development of the biological filter and helps keep aquariums clean" - I'm a bit skeptical but originally I used it because I had it and now I keep using it as I don't really want to change what I do as it seems to work - not the greatest reason I know but "if it ain't broke. . . "

The heater does tend to just heat the water around it and then turn off, so at some point I may invest in a little pump to move the water around. The Rena heater is plastic rather than glass and built like a tank - it has survived living in a bucket and being banged around a bit really well so I would highly recommend it for this function. It also doubles up as a spare if something goes wrong with my aquarium one. When I had to replace the heater in my quarantine tank I went for one of these.

Water Change Barrel
The water change barrel - I put the lid on.

I can highly recommend getting yourself a load of old rag rugs to cover the carpet. I also have a plastic sheet that I put under the rug in front of the aquarium. Sooner or later you're going to have a water spill when standing on a stepstool using a jug to put water into a tank. Luckily my worst accident was stepping backwards into a bucket of filthy water - the only casualty was my slippers.

Basically I siphon 3-4 buckets of water (35-50l) out of the tank with a large gravel cleaner (Marina Easy Clean) - cleaning as much of the gravel as I can reach. The plants make it very difficult to clean the gravel effectively and I'm still worried that I have the gravel too deep, but I press it gently into the substrate around the plants and suck out the mulm. The centre bar of the aquarium means that I have to take the siphon out and restart it to do the other side. It took a little while to get the hang of starting the syphon - it's one where you have to vigorously move it up and down - but I've got the hang of it now. Remember to turn off the filter and heater before removing water - easy to forget but it doesn't like it and then will make rattling noises like mad when it goes back on. The trick if this happens is to turn it off for a minute and then try again.

Before I had fish I was terrified that I would siphon them up with my rather large gravel cleaner and injure them. But although the they come and see what's going on, I haven't had a problem as I keep it close to the substrate and they can swim strongly enough to get away. They are obsessed with trying to get to the dirt inside the tube as they think it might be food. I leave the lights on, flip up the front and back of the lid and push it to the back of the tank when I am working, so that I can see what I am doing. Warning: great care is needed when you do this not to dislodge one end and drop the lighting into the tank. It is best to turn off the power when you move the lighting unit.

The barrel stands on the kitchen work top so that I can siphon the treated and heated water from it back into the buckets. I then stand on a stepstool and rest the bucket on the corner of the tank (only advisable with a large, solid tank on a very solid stand) and use a jug to put the water back into the tank.

I did two water changes in the week after putting the fish in, partially because I wanted to give the gravel a clean both sides, partially to ensure that the nitrates were low enough. There were no signs of ammonia and nitrites all week, if there had been I would have done more water changes. After a couple of weeks I went back to weekly water changes, before which I trimmed any plants that needed doing and cleaned the glass. The drop checkers (I now have two) are taken out before water changes.

More recently I have a new addition to the water change equipment. I bought myself and Eheim Compact+ 2000 water pump and a long piece of hosing to pump the water from the barrel into the tank. If you are thinking of doing this a piece of advice is to go for hosing for ponds rather than aquariums as it tends to be a more reasonable price! This is used to pump water from the barrel in the kitchen into the aquarium and has taken away the need to balance on step stools with buckets of water. Sadly, although the pump is supposed to work out of water it is not self priming, so it needs to go in the barrel so can't get the last bit of water. We tend to chuck an extra bucket of water in as it is pumping at the moment, but I have plans to get a 60l barrel.

I am also going to experiment with siphoning out into a barrel and pumping the water out of there so there is no bucket lifting for the removed water either. However I do like to check for siphoned fish in the buckets so this may be less practical. To be honest it's not so much moving the buckets that is the problem - it was the getting them to the top of the tank and putting the water in! When the water is in the tank the hose has to be carefully lifted along it's length so that the water in it is emptied back into the bucked and not all over my carpet!


Initially I tested the ammonia and nitrite daily as any rise would be bad for the fish. After a week or so I went to every other day and then to twice weekly. More recently I have tested only about once a week in the main tank, or if I have any concerns. I test daily again for a week or so if any new fish go in. I have never detected any ammonia or nitrite in the tank since cycling, even when adding new fish. I think tanks heavily planted with fast growing plants do a very good job of dealing with increases in load. I've also bought a Seachem Ammonia alert, which is a permanent visible ammonia test that goes in the tank and should detect very low levels of ammonia - it's not something I'd depend on, on it's own, but it's good because it tests 24hrs a day.

I also monitor pH and KH as I have found that the pH can drop, due to drops in water hardness. However regular water changes help defend against this. I also keep and eye on nitrates but these tend to reduce due to the number of plants in the tank. As mentioned below, I am beginning to think that I may need to supplement the nitrates for the plants.

I also test for Iron to ensure that I have the right level of fertiliser in the water - this is a JBL kit that is recommended to go with the ferropol that I use as a fertiliser.

Filter Maintenance

Filter cleaning is another area where there is a great deal of confusion. Some people seem to 'clean' their filters weekly, possibly in mistaken the belief that a 'dirty' filter will make the tank water dirty. But these things are living ecosystems of bacteria and if you keep fiddling you risk messing up the balance.

I've been changing the top filter wool weekly as this filters out any floating stuff from the water and will block up after a while. I have found it gets clogged much more quickly recently, particularly since getting the cories who I suspect kick up some of the mulm when they feed. So I keep a close eye on it and replace it mid week if it looks like the filter flow is slowing down. I initially changed the carbon sponge after four weeks - I've been a bit more slap happy about it more recently as the bogwood has stopped putting out tannins. The green nitrate removing sponge is supposed to be changed after 6 weeks, but since my nitrates are quite low I have stopped changing it and left it to be part of the biological filtration.

Cleaning or replacing the filter sponges scares me half to death to be honest as I'm worried that it will mess up the nitrogen cycle bacteria. It also kicks out a fair bit of crud into the tank when you remove the sponges, which I guess is a disadvantage of this sort of filter. The Juwel website states that it is important for the water to move slowly through the filter to enable the bacteria time to remove the ammonia/nitrites. Apparently "Optimal re circulation only occurs as a result of large cleaning intervals". So it isn't necessary to clean the fine filter sponges more than a couple of times a year as long as they aren't blocking. I don't plan to replace them unless they fall apart. See the Juwel web site for more details. The trick with filters definitely seems to be to fiddle with it as little as possible.

Plant Feeding and Trimming

The CO2 system came with some JBL Ferropol weekly feed and Ferropol 24 (which contains trace elements that aren't stable enough to be added weekly). It seems to work so I've kept using them, but I've divided the Ferropol dose into daily amounts as there seems little point having a lot of unused nutrients hanging around at the beginning of the week feeding the algae. The substrate contained laterite and a tetra nutrient substrate, but of course this doesn't last for ever and I got some JBL root balls when some of the plant's growth slowed. Tanks are not stable systems. You see those beautiful pictures of aquascaped tanks but they are often 'flower arranged' - most of the plants are grown elsewhere whilst the carpet on the substrate is established, then perfect plants are put in, followed by fish, and then a photo is taken. It may well be that these tanks would be impossible to keep looking like that. I look at some of the photos of my tank after a couple of months and it looks better than it does today! It's ongoing gardening!

Most of the plants are grew like triffids. I have been hoiking out half the amazon frogbit weekly - I've even posted a load of it to a couple of people on a forum who were struggling with high phosphate in their tap water as it seems great at removing that. I also remove any sad looking leaves and dodgy roots.

Sadly I've had to trim back the Vallis as it has got too long and shading everything, leaving blunt leaf ends but new ones soon grow over them. This can cause the trimmed ends to start to die back and get some brown algae - but I haven't really got a lot of choice. The idea that you carefully pull off too long leaves doesn't work when all the leaves have reached the surface! It's also impractical in such a deep tank. The vallis also puts out new plantlets - basically a a side shoot comes out of the main plant and then roots at its end, producing a new plant. I gently pull the new plant and cut it away from the main plant if it is in the wrong place. The multitool that I bought which has an interchangeable cutting tool and a grabber is very useful for this - I'd quite like a second one so I don't have to keep changing heads. If I didn't get the plantlets out the vallis would take over the tank - I've also had to hoik out handfuls around the originally plants.

The Hygrophilia was more problematical - shading out it's lower half and causing it to die back and produce lots of aerial roots. Initially I used to trim it back but it got very sad looking - these days I tend to pull out the long growth and replant the healthy top bit. It's not been the easiest of plants to keep looking good.

The Glossostigma got quite leggy and was badly affected by the staghorn algae and so I trimmed back the top of it - it's not been a terribly good plant and probably requires more light than it gets at the bottom of my tank. In the end I removed it from the tank.

The new Cryptocornye did very well. The original ones suffered from a bit of staghorn and brown algae. I chopped off affected leaves and new ones grew through. Once the Glosso was removed my Siamese Algae Eater cleaned them up - although he'd rather chase the tetras and eat the roots on the frogbit. Once the tank was more mature I had an outbreak of green hair/mat algae which has grown around the bottom of the small Cryptocornye - I am considering replacing them with new ones. Sometimes if a plant really doesn't do that well this is the easiest thing to do.

The Anubia is quite slow growing and although new leaves are clean they slowly get spots of brown algae - once I had nerite snails and little pit bull/dwarf gold spot plecos in the tank they kept these quite clean but never really got the old leaves perfect. These shouldn't have been planted in the substrate as this can cause the rhizome to rot. I have plans to take them out and attach them to some wood.

The two big Echinodorus had different fates - the one that was quite shaded did very well keeping bushy and below the water surface. The other one that had plenty of light got too big and the leaves kept emerging from the water. It also kept putting up flower spikes that I needed to trim off. I finally got it to settle by allowing the vallis to overgrow it on the surface, but it's still a bit . Before I got the mini-plecs and nerites brown algae on the leaves could be a bit of a problem but not too back. I tend to trim off unwanted or damaged leaves and then the next week gently pull the stem away from the main plant when it has started to die back a bit.

The Echinodorus Ozelot did wonderfully initially - looked great and grew like a triffid. Then after a few months it stopped growing and the existing leaves turned lighter and die back from the tips. I am still working on what is wrong with it - it is now growing slowly and produces small leaves. I thought initially it might be because the laterite in the substrate was exhausted and I have recently added some more (a bit of a messy job). Some of the other plants have small holes in the leaves - the nearest I can find to the two symptoms is nitrate and potassium deficiencies - the nitrate although high in the tap water does actually go down in my tank over the week. I am currently doing some more intensive monitoring of nitrate and iron levels over a week to get more idea what is going on.

The CO2 system wasn't without it's problems initially. The drop checker went bright yellow a few days after adding the fish indicating too high CO2 levels which are not good for fish. The fish looked fine - no gasping at the surface but I turned off the CO2 immediately. I put it on more slowly the next day but the drop checker went yellow again. At this point the drop checker seems to have lost it's ability to detect dropping CO2 levels. The upshot of this was the CO2 ended up off for two days, and the CO2 fluctuations caused an outbreak of staghorn algae. The moral of this story is to change the fluid in the drop checker if there are any problems. I have ended up with two drop checkers, one with the JBL indicator in and one with the API pH indicator which goes yellow at a slightly lower pH for backup. I have managed to keep it pretty stable since with the CO2 going on two hours before the lights and off two hours before.

Tank in November
The tank in May after the Glosso had been removed and the plants have grown

Maintenance of the tank is an ongoing thing. Just because a plant looks wonderful one week it doesn't meant that it will continue to do so. As previously mentioned I have had some problems with the Ozelot and am trying some new root tabs to see if it will pick up again. This is its last chance - it will need to go if I can't save it. So here is the tank nearly a year after I set it up.

Tank in November
The tank in November.

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