Keeping a heavily planted aquarium can be both a challenging and rewarding task. When I speak to our customers about setting up a planted aquarium, I often refer to a planted tank as the reef aquarium of the freshwater world. There are a variety of fantastic resources online for researching plants and planted aquaria such as The Planted Tank but there is so much information in treasure troves like that, it can be difficult to sort out some of the basics. This article is intended to show its reader the path to take on the way to setting up a planted aquarium using bright lighting, CO2, and a few other items specifically for caring for live plants in the home aquarium. All of these things are NOT needed for setting up a basic aquarium with a few low light plants, but for the more impressive set ups by masters of the planted aquarium like the famous Takashi Amano, understanding what direction to go from the start is very important. If you are reading this article, you are already considering using CO2 in the planted aquarium you are thinking of putting together, so you have decided to take a more advanced route to your setup.
Before spending any money, research and plan for the planted aquarium you want to build. View the work of other planted tank aquarists, or study photos of outdoor scenes of the woods, mountains, or countryside. Familizarize yourself with some of the basic layout concepts used by aquascapers, and decide whether you want to have an aquarium set up which is perfectly symmetrical or whether you want to set one up which is intentionally assymetrical. The shape of your aquarium may aid in this planning, since some shapes lend themselves more naturally to one style than another.
Planning and research are two distinctly different steps in the process of setting up a planted aquarium. Research has to do with both the technical aspects of setting up your planted tank, as well as locating the items you wish to purchase for your aquarium. While researching the things you will be considering are things like what type of substrate do you want to use, what plants do you want to use, will you be incorporating driftwood or rock into your design and where will you purchase it, and what are you planning to do for filtration. PetSolutions offers a really nice Malaysian Driftwood which is my favorite when I’m going to be using wood in the aquarium. You have already decided to use CO2 in the aquarium, so some of the things you will need to research on that are where you can get a CO2 tank filled or swapped out in your local area, whether you are going to go with a fully manual, partly manual, or fully automated CO2 delivery setup. You will also need to decide how you will want to diffuse the CO2 as it is supplied to your aquarium, figuring out whether you want to use a bubble diffuser or if you want a more specialized setup with an inline diffuser set up with a power head or on the return line of a power filter. There are a wide variety of CO2 set ups in use, with something for everyone ranging from very low tech (sugar and yeast in a 2 liter bottle) to very high tech.
CO2 Set Variations
1) The most basic setup is a do it yourself combination of yeast packets, sugar, and water combined with a 2 liter bottle with a cork, rubber stopper, or a whole drilled in the screw on cap. I have done this, and while it is inexpensive, it will be labor intensive and will be very unpredictable. You will be mixing up more of the sugar and yeast concoction than you really want to, and controlling the output can be difficult because the rate of CO2 production in the bottle is difficult to regulate or predict. Using something like a gang valve to control the flow of CO2 from the bottle up to the diffuser in the aquarium is helpful, but is by no means going to make the process easy. It is an inexpensive way to get started, makes a fun science project, and is a good way to begin to understand the basics of CO2 introduction into an aquarium but it is not ideal for the long term.
2) A more reliable and consistent source of CO2 is still a fully manual setup, but one which uses components that are reliable. This setup will use a pressurized CO2 cannister ranging in size anywhere from pellet gun cartridge size to welding bottle size, depending on what is best for your purposes. This setup will use a CO2 regulator, as well as a bubble counter, and a bubble diffuser of some sort in its employment. This will also use a CO2 measuring device usually placed in the aquarium. Using this set up, you will adjust the bubbles per minute by hand over a period of a couple of days, getting slowly to the right number of bubbles per minute to properly saturate your system with CO2. Now, the down side with a fully manual setup is that it is always on unless you manually turn it off. During the day and night your plants will have different CO2 needs. Bad things can happen to the PH of the aquarium if the CO2 is being given off but not taken up by any of the plants. Some aquarium keepers who use this setup, or the first setup above, will turn off their CO2 at night when they go to bed.
3) A semi automated setup is the third possible setup, it is one which employs the use of an electronic solenoid to allow or restrict CO2 from coming out of the bottle. In this particular setup it uses the same components and method as number 2 above, but it will be able to use a digital timer to control the solenoid. So, every evening, or afternoon, or whenever the timer can be set to close the solenoid so that no CO2 is coming into the aquarium.
4) Lastly, in the scope of this article this will be the most complex setup, which is a fully automated system. The fully automated system uses the elements found in number 2 listed above, but instead of adding a timer to control the electronic solenoid valve it will use a PH controller. The PH controller will open up the solenoid day or night at any time the CO2 levels reach a set point established in the controller. If the PH for theplanted aquarium is set at 7.0 but the aquarium water naturally runs at 7.5, the PH being introduced to the aquariaum will be gradually dropping the PH until it reaches 7.0. Once it hits that point, then it focuses its efforts on maintaining the 7.0 by opening and closing the solenoid valve. This setup will still need regular check ups to insure it is functioning properly, and it can fail just like any of the other CO2 systems, but if assembled and maintained properly a good CO2 system will give many years of service.
There are alternate combination versions of these setups, using different components, but there are the basic top four. When you begin to think about using CO2 in your planted aquarium, one of the systems mentioned above is likely where you will end up. I wish you great success, and happy plant keeping!