eRodent > Tropical Aquarium > Setting Up the Aquarium.

Setting up a Planted Tropical Aquarium.

These new pages will be about the trials and tribulations of a complete novice (i.e. me) trying to set up a beautiful planted aquarium from scratch. There's lots of books and sites out there on setting up tropical aquariums so I'm not going to try and reproduce this information - simply write about my experiences. I've been feeling quite low lately and the idea of this is to give me a new hobby which I can amuse myself with in the dark evenings - I'm a little bit worried that I have simply given myself a world of hassle but we will see. This is a hobby that can seriously dent your wallet; it's not just the cost of the tank, the small stuff all mounts up. If you are clever and get on eBay you can save a fortune by finding someone who has spent this sort of money and then got bored, flogging the stuff of for a couple of hundred spondoolies.Or you can buy yourself a big heap-o-trouble - see the Before you buy a Tropical Aquarium. page for more on this.

When I started out what I was planning to do was buy a 2 foot aquarium for a hundred quid or so, put an 'ironic' castle decoration in it and have a small shoal of neon tetras. Little did I realise that nothing in this world is that simple, and owning a tropical fish tank is a mixture of gardening, microbiology and chemistry. Being well aware from my long experience with the eRodents that it's a lot better to learn from the mistakes of others than make them yourself, I decided to do a little reading before I started. I started out with a copy of Setting up a Tropical Aquarium Week by Week by Stuart Thraves and joined the Tropical Fish Forums UK in order to ask questions.

Much reading later I had discovered that the larger the tank the easier it is to get it well balanced for healthy fish and that tropical fish tanks need to be set up initially without fish and then a 'fishless cycle' run to get the filter working correctly to keep the water healthy for fish. I had also decided that planted tanks also look really beautiful compared to ones with artificial ornaments and plants. I was won over by the pictures on the Planted Tank and Rate my Tank web sites. Sadly neon tetras are actually quite sensitive fish and many thousands are imported every year simply to die within a few weeks or months. So out with the two foot tank, the ironic ruined castle and even the neon tetras and in with something all together more interesting. . .

Before the start - Choosing the kit.

The tank decision was made fairly easily. I soon worked out that the larger, the better and I have just enough space for a 4 foot tank. Both the guy in the aquarium store and the people on the tropical fish forums recommended Juwel tanks and the new ones have the new, bright T5 lights which are apparently good for plants. This left me with a choice between the Rio which is a standard rectangle tank and the Visions which have bow fronts. Although the Visions look nice they are quite a bit more expensive for a similar sized tank. It's apparently also difficult to take pictures through the glass, which I would want to do. So decision made - a Juwel Rio 240 it is. I also want a CO2 fertiliser; basically a way of increasing the carbon dioxide in the water during the day, which encourages healthy plant growth and discourages algae overgrowth.

I also discovered whilst trawling around pretty much every aquarium store in my local area that the shop assistants generally ignore you - which is actually quite irritating if you need advice and to be sold a tank. Once I was more confident I would just collar an assistant and they were all quite helpful. I can highly recommend looking at all of your local shops, particularly at how the fish are cared for. There is a huge difference locally - in some the tanks are sparkling clean with really healthy looking fish, but others really aren't so good (downright depressing in some). I worry a little about the ethics of the huge numbers of fish that are imported - many of which must die fairly quickly. So I may even try to source my fish from local enthusiasts whose fish have bred and are looking for homes; but we will have to see how practical that is.

Before the start, buying the kit - Saturday 29th November 2008

I did have a look at eBay and there were some great bargains to be had, but really wanted a dark wood stand and neither of our cars are big enough to pick up a fish tank. I also didn't feel confident enough to cope with any problems with a second hand tank or to move someone else's fish. A lot of tanks on eBay don't have fish with them but if you buy a tank that comes with the fish make sure that you have read articles on 'moving house' carefully as it's a real challenge. Anyhow, I'm finally working full time after years of retraining and then being in a part time job, so I decided to splash out some of my hard earned wonga on new kit. I had a budget of 500 for the tank setup (excluding fish) - oh dear that was a bit naive.

Buying was easier said than done. I found everything that I wanted on the Internet - but unfortunately couriers will only deliver to the kerb i.e. you've got to have two people at home all day to wait for the delivery which is something that we really can't manage, particularly as I've done this before only to have the courier fail to show. So what I needed was someone who would deliver within a fairly short time slot and bring the tank into the house. Luckily there was a branch of a big chain locally that was happy to do this. I went in on a Saturday morning which meant they were busy but I managed to collar an assistant. When faced with a barrage of information I went a bit startled rabbit on him. However not so startled rabbit that I couldn't ask about delivery and price matching policy and they matched the online offer I had been looking at. They are charging 15 for delivery but gave me a 10 voucher for plants so I'm really happy with that. They are telephoning me on Monday to arrange delivery so we will see how it goes. I absolutely hate haggling but it seems that the startled rabbit with a piece of paper approach works very well :-)

I was also given 15kg of Aquagrit planting medium, some water conditioner and a net in with the price of the tank. Aquagrit is apparently very good for the plant roots - although I am a little concerned that if I have catfish it might be a bit rough for them to dig around in. But I suspect that 15kg isn't quite enough so I might put some smooth gravel on top.

So in the absence of my tank until it has been delivered I am now the proud owner of a bucket of grit and two big pieces of stonkingly expensive wood (although also with a discount). I'm a little concerned about whether I will be able to get all the tannins out of the bog wood - it is currently soaking in a trug of boiling water; apparently it can take a couple of weeks and still stain your water. I hear rumour that you can put it through the dishwasher as long as there are no chemicals in there, but mine has chemicals in some I'm not gong to try it. We shall see. . .

Juwel Rio 240
Doesn't look that big in the shop does it?
(with my husband who isn't responsible except that he suggested we should get the largest that would fit in)

You know you're and aquarist when. . . - Sunday 39th November 2008

You know you're an aquarist when. . . you have a bucket of bog wood soaking in your bath! The first lot of water came off pretty dark and I've read some slightly worrying stuff about aquarium shop bog wood being more trouble than it's worth but I shall give it a go.

Current Spend: 354.95 for Juwel Rio 240 with free 15kg Aquagrit, net and water conditioner, 15 for delivery but with 10 credit note for fish/plants, 27 for complete test kit, 37 bog wood (got a bit carried away there), 2.15 on receipt for something but not sure what.
Total = 435.49. Moneys left: 64.51 (gonna break the budget)

Oh my god it's flipping enormous. . .- Wednesday 3rd December 2008

Well the tank turned up as promised. But I think we may have got a little carried away with the size of it, it's enormous. It currently can only be described as lurking in my hall. It's not actually staying there; it's going to be moved into the living room to be set up.

Juwel Rio 240
The lurking tank - watch your ankles!

I succumbed to a couple of little pleco caves off of a guy on eBay yesterday, I want to put all of my hard landscaping in all at once so as I am not fiddling around with the plants later. I can now see why I bought the two bits of bog wood, I think I may need them (update: actually I didn't). It's still soaking - gave it a good scrub yesterday which increased the tannins leaching a bit but it's going down. I've failed to buy anything else as I couldn't find a gravel I really liked at the shop I went to (well shops but the other had closed in the last week, honest they're going down faster than ants at an aardvark convention). Still unsure about which CO2 system to get and even what fertiliser to use for the plants but I think it can wait.

Spend 22.50 Total = 457.99 Moneys left: 42.01 (like that's gonna stop me).

It's all gone a bit pear shaped. . .- Friday 5th December 2008

So last night after days of looking at different CO2 systems I completely lost it and bought a JBL Pro flora CO2 Set (M602) for vast quantities of spondoolies. I wanted one that I could set up to turn off automatically at night when I'm away for the weekend as the CO2 should only be run when the lights are on as plants do not use CO2 in the dark as they use it for photosynthesis. Oh and a thermometer - you know it makes sense. Bog wood still soaking and still chucking out tannins.

Current Spend CO2 Fertiliser 158.98, Timer: 4.95, Thermometer 1.59 = 165.52
Total Spend = 623.51 Money's left -123.51 Groveling to husband about to start.

Tips for Assembling a Juwel Rio 240. - Sunday 7th December 2008

So I went out shopping yesterday and bought even more stuff, gravel for on top of the Aquagrit and I'm going to try a dish of sand. I've also bought yet more stuff today. But the good news is I finally assembled the tank. The stand took me about an hour; for flat pack furniture it's very good quality and fulfills the vital requirement of only being able to be assembled the correct way. The only flimsy thing about it is the tank lid which could have done with being a little more robust although I guess it needs to be light; apart from that it's all cracking good quality. Its a shame that the filter housing is in the right hand corner, it would have looked so much better if it was at the other end but hey-ho. Now it's in my living room it actually looks smaller again, probably because the room is 's much larger than the hall and I am indeed pleased that I bought a large one. Anyhow, Paula's tips for assembling a Juwel Rio 240 on your own:
  • Read the instructions thought to the end before you start - obvious but so true.
  • Don't loose the instructions in case you ever need to take it apart. If you've lost the instructions (or bought second hand) I'm pretty sure that they will have them on the Juwel web site
  • Get out all of the bits of wood and work out which is which and then label them with their letters on post-it notes (because putting the wrong pieces together is really irritating)
  • Your really need a ratchet screwdriver kit at the least, if not a power screwdriver as doing it all with a standard screwdriver and the little allen key will drive you mad.
  • Double check that you have the pieces the right way round before screwing them together (again obvious but irritating if you get it wrong).
  • The first job is to attach the sides to the back. For this you need to put the top on its side and the sides need to be held above floor level. To do this rest the sides on two pieces that you haven't used yet to get them at the right level.
  • Don't fully tighten the screws until they are all in. This is particularly important when you put the bottom on.
  • There is no way that you are going to put the tank on top on your own. Find a nearby man (or woman) of reasonable strength to help you lift it, two if you can't lift 25kg yourself.
  • If it's near to a door put a permanent door stop in to prevent the door from hitting the tank or it will happen at some point

  • Spend: Gravel and sand: 19.76 pH Narrow Range 6:50, Tetra Complete Substrate 16.99, API Stress Cote+ and StressZyme 30.98, Fake Cave: 9:99 Mega Sucky Thing (gravel cleaner) 14:09, Brass Door Stopper: 6, Two buckets=2.80. Total = 107.11 Total Spend=730.62, Budget Blown By: 230.63

    Juwel Rio 240
    The only thing I needed a second person for was to lift the tank on top.
    Also note the door stop to prevent the glass door hitting the tank.

    Adding the substrate. - Weds 10th December 2008

    Well it all got a little more expensive as I found a box of Laterite in my local garden centre for 24.99, after already having bought some Tetra Complete Substrate. So I decided to use the whole lot - let's hope I'm not over fertilising. Feeling as rough as a badgers rear end on Wednesday I added the substrate. First picture just the Laterite and a terracotta dish; the aim of this is to add a small patch of sand for my corys to dig in so that it doesn't get completely mixed in with the rest of the substrate immediately - I don't hold out a lot of hope though. You can also see my very useful set of step stools and the new buckets which are conveniently marked in litres and gallons on the inside, which is great because it means I can easily measure how much water I'm putting in. I would recommend that you get the type with a pouring lip at the front which helps no end when adding water.

    Laterite in
    Getting Started.

    Next photo shows the tetra complete substrate and the Aquagrit in. The Tetra Complete looks a bit like soil and the size I had (shown on the steps in the photo above) covered the bottom of the tank with a thin layer which I mixed with the Laterite. You can just about see it at the bottom of the tank - mostly it is hidden under the surround. I rinsed the Laterite as it instructed me to do on the box and a lot of red dust came out, but I didn't want to rinse it completely clean as I was worried about removing all the nutrients. I also rinsed the Aquagrit through. Luckily I own a large sive which fits over the sink, which I'd never been used, that made this job easy.

    Aquagrit in

    Next I filled the terracotta dish with rinsed aquarium sand and finally put the gravel over the Aquagrit and just over the edges of the dish so that they don't show and broke up the outline with some decorative stones and a fake cave (not shown in the picture). The gravel layer is deeper in places that won't be heavily planted so that the corys don't dig down to the Aquagrit too easily. Interestingly the gravel that I had bought wasn't very dirty and rinsed fairly quickly. I faffed around a bit with the depth of the substrate, I wanted a good deep layer where the larger plants were going but I was concerned that it might be too deep and cause anaerobic bacteria to flourish so I took some of it out again at one point. Finally I added the first 50 litres of water to the tank (not shown yet). To do this I placed a bowel on top of the gravel and poured water carefully in from a bucket so as not to disturb the gravel. I only filled the bucket to 10 litres which meant it wasn't too heavy and also allowed me to add a fairly exact amount of StressCoat and StressZyme to the water. It actually says 10ml for 38l but I added 5ml of each per two 10l buckets as this was an amount that I could accurately measure with the cap. The water didn't go particularly cloudy and it had settled by the next day. It's reasonably easy to tip in a 10 litre bucket from the step stool slowly - I estimate I'm going to need about 20 of them. I'm pleased with my Marina Easy Clean gravel cleaner as it looks like it's high quality, with a good bucket clip which allows you to close off the pipe. It should help no end with getting water out for water changes, but the truth will be when I come to actually use it of course.

    All Substrate In
    All Substrate In.

    Spend: Laterite 24.99, Terracotta Dish 3 Total = 758.61 Budget Blown by 258.61 - er can I just point out at this point I'm simply trashing our holiday savings not sticking it all on the credit card.

    Also arrived this week was my CO2 Fertiliser. This is a really high quality piece of kit and certainly worth the money - the only question being whether I could really afford it. There's a 500g CO2 cylinder, a pressure regulator valve and a solenoid that can be attached to a timer, a bubble counter, a non-return valve to prevent water flowing back up the pipe and a groovy "CO2 Passive Reactor" - which is techno speak for a plastic thingy that makes the bubbles rise up slowly so that they dissolve fully in the water. Oh and a permanent pH test for the water which will be useful, although they haven't included a Carbonate Hardness (KH) test with this kit so I will need to buy one as you need to know the KH to work out whether the CO2 levels are correct (do a Google search on pH KH CO2 to find out more). Plus some samples of their plant food which will be good to start off with. The solenoid was what real

    JBL M602 Box Contents
    JBL M602 Box Contents.

    Struggling with the lurg. - Friday 12th December 2008

    At this point I was struck down with the lurg and everything went a bit on hold. I've just about managed to find the energy today (Friday) to update this website, but nothing else has been done on the tank as I feel faint every time I stand up - it's soooo boring. I have decided that I want Tropica plants which they stock in the Stratford Branch of Maidenhead Aquatics which is a bit of a drive from here (not well enough to drive either - boo). But I've also heard that they stock them at Pets at Home so I will check it out over the weekend if I'm a bit more human.

    Also good news on the bog wood front - I've taken out the larger piece because I don't have room for both (which is a shame as it's really nice) and the smaller piece is finally starting to turn the water in the bucket less yellow! I'm beginning to look forwards to a time when there won't be a bucket of bog wood in my bath! Now I'm used to it, the tank doesn't look that big, in fact I'm beginning to wonder if it's large enough as I have lots of fish I want and don't want to stock that heavily. Ho Hum.

    I've just added another 50l of treated water which raised the depth by 9.5cm, the first 50l was partially displaced by the gravel and so raised it by more. It's about 23.5cm to the maximum fill level which I calculate to need approx 125 more litres of water making a total of 225 litres or 53 gallons. However I'm going to be putting a whacking great lump of bog wood in so it will actually be less than that. Still using the more conservative estimation method of 1" per gallon I've got about 50" of fully grown fish to play with. So I'm thinking:

  • 6 x Harlequin Rasbora 1.6" = approx 10"
  • 6 x Cardinal Tetra 2" = 12" - or perhaps a slightly more subtle tetra
  • 5 X Corydoras Sterbai 3.2" = 16" - or perhaps one of the smaller ones
  • 1 or 2 Bristlenosed Catfish 5" = 10"

  • Not all put in at once of course - I've got to cycle the thing first. At some point in the future when everything is well established I'd also like a pair of the smaller Cichlids, but that will have to wait a long while. I think I need to lie down now, I'm feeling distinctly rubbish after that (the lifting buckets of water not the working out which fish I'd like).

    No Decent Plants Anywhere. - Saturday 13th December 2008

    I just haven't been able to get hold of the plants I want in any of my local shops - the ones they do have don't really look that well or have algae/snail problems. So I've done a big Internet order from The Green Machine online. The guy on the phone was really helpful and answered my questions. I'm waiting until they get their new delivery in on Wednesday for them to be dispatched as he was honest and said that one of the items I wanted wasn't looking that good and it will be better to get fresh plants. Can't wait, I've ordered:

  • 2x Echinodorus cordifolius ssp. fluitans - a nice, large leaved, plant to go at the back and add structure.
  • Echinodorus 'Ozelot' (Green)- a posh, quite expensive version of the above to go in front, right hand corner to hide the filter box.
  • Hygrophila polysperma - another largish, hardy plant, this time with smaller leaves which I want in the far left corner
  • 3x Vallisneria spiralis `Tiger` - long thin leaves that I think look more natural than some of the larger leaved plants.
  • Limnobium laevigatum - a small surface floater.
  • Anubia barteri var. angustifolia - a really nice foreground plant but a bit expensive hence just the one.
  • 3 x Cryptocoryne x willisii - another nice foreground plant.
  • 3 x Glossostigma elatinoides - a tiny leaved foreground plant that, hopefully, will form a carpet with care.

  • I've chosen them as being listed as easy plants with a wide range of conditions tolerated. I have to admit that the Thraves book uses a lot of them for his example tank setup, but I want my tank to look good, not original. I'm going for all green as I think the fish will show up better and it will look more natural. This is the site for the : Tropica Catalogue.

    I did, however get to wander around the fish at Maidenhead aquatics again. I'm going off the idea of neon/cardinal tetra and think I might go for some glowlight and X-ray tetra which seem a little hardier and are very attractive in a more subtle way.The filter and heater have been running over night and it's all cleared nicely. The glass is a little dirty from the water splashes and the top of previous levels, so I've bought a magnetic scraper, I would advise doing all of the filling at once if possible to avoid this. The good news is that the water is only slightly yellow from the bog wood.

    Plant Cost = 95.25 Have also bought cable tidy 12 Scraper 2 Magnetic Scraper 11 Sealant 3 Total Spend = 881.86 Over Budget by 381.86

    With Water
    With water and the glass cleaned up.

    So I've now cleaned up the glass with the magnetic thingy which is really great (Mag-Clean medium) but watch your fingers those are really mean magnets! I couldn't use it to do the back due to lack of access so I used the scraper on a stick I bought yesterday. I think I may have to tell people that it's special invisible fish and plants as it's going to be a while before they arrive. I've been having a think about maturing the filter having talked to many people about it. I really don't like the idea of buying ammonia from a DIY shop as you just don't know what it's contaminated with, so although everyone says it's just expensive ammonia I'm going to buy some Waterlife Biomature as it's designed for the purpose and I won't be accidentally introducing industrial chemicals into my tank. Probably less necessary is that I've bought their 'bacterial' product Bacterlife as well. There's a lot of cynicism out there about the bacterial products but it's only a couple of quid. I've also bought a carbonate hardness test. Another 20 squiddlies bites the dust with the rather excessive postage cost.As you can see from the photo I've got the cable tidy on so that you can hardly see the cables either from the front or through the glass wall at the back. However you can see into the back of the cabinet which looks rubbish so I'm going to sort out a dark cardboard back for them.

    Maturing Filter and KH test = 20 Total Spend = about 900 squiddlies Over Budget by 400 squiddlies.

    This is pretty much the final figure for setting up the tank (minus fish) - it is a lot of money and it might look like I've been just chucking it away, but you do make the odd mistake when doing a project like this. What would I not have bought if I did it again? Well some of the chemicals were a bit overpriced, I haven't used one expensive piece of bog wood and some of the substrate (the tetra complete) was surplus to requirements but that probably doesn't add up to more than about 50 quid.

    To follow the next, slightly more exciting, phase of the process go to the Planting the Aquarium page.

    Do you like this page? Is it useful? Please email me at and let me know. Put something about aquariums in the title so I can pick it out if my spam filter gets it.

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