Lo-Tech Tanks

(Unedited version)
Originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of
Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

When you hang out with aquarium folks for any length of time you'll find that we all have different methods. Whether talking about aquarium plants, fish, or marine tanks, everyone has their own method. Of course I have mine. In past columns I've mostly written about the plants and animals and other organisms that live in the planted aquarium. This month I'd like to write a little bit about the methods I use and why I've chosen them.

Something for Everyone

For me this is one of the beauties of the aquarium hobby, there are many options and combinations that can work for a variety of different hobbyists and their needs. Some want to stay on top of the latest research and use the newest equipment available, while some like to stick with the tried and true. Some people want to breed the rarest fish. Some people want the rarest plants. Some want the most beautiful set up. And here beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

Many new hobbyists and, I've noticed, particularly children, want a classic aquarium with brightly colored gravel and the bubbling skeleton with treasure chest. This isn't generally what the hard core underwater garden types are going to consider the optimal aquarium design. But for some that is the perfect aquarium. Every one has different goals in their aquariums and will judge its perfection differently.

Fortunately there are many options available. As with everything you have to look at the pros and the cons of each choice before making an informed decision. As with all decisions, your choices will have consequences in regards to what animals and plants you can keep, how much it will cost both in set up and future upkeep, and how much and what type of time and maintenance the aquarium will require in the future.

A lot of innovation in the high tech planted tank has taken place over recent years and a lot of literature has been increasingly covering the methods using these innovations. But people have been keeping plants in their aquariums pretty much since they've been keeping aquariums. This month I'd like to write a bit about the lo-tech tanks. Something I call natural aquariums.

As for the term natural aquarium, obviously you can't make an exact representation of nature in your home aquarium. If you think of the term in that way it becomes an oxymoron. But even though you can't exactly recreate nature in your aquarium you can try to get closer.

My Methods

Now on to what it is I do with my aquariums. I generally prefer glass tanks. I add gravel and water, plants and lighting, then other animals and fish. Pretty simple set up really. For a number of reasons this is the best system for my aquarium keeping needs. I don't think this is the right sort of set up for everyone, though it is the best one for me. I really feel that the options available for the planted aquarium are of a wider range than is usually presented.

Below I'd like to mention some of the equipment and additives often used for a planted aquarium and why I may or may not use them.


The truth is I've lived in Arizona for 16 years. It's warm here and I just don't need heaters, I can certainly see if your house is cold and you have one or a few tanks, then you may need a heater for some types of aquariums. On the other hand if I had a whole fish room even in a cold climate, I'd warm the whole room, rather than the individual tanks.


I got my first tank when I was 6. It had a box filter that was used and cleaned regularly. Later I got another tank, then another, then a few more. They were all in my bedroom with lights and filters and heaters, and lots of extension cords and buzzing noises. I also grew a few easy plants in some of my tanks though others were decorated with plastic plants.

One of my filters was a new over the back type that I had on a 20 gallon planted tank. The filter broke twice. The first time was a small part that was easily fixed. The second time the part was almost as much as a new filter. Anyway I was annoyed and broke so I just said fine and left the tank without a filter.

Several years past and I was out on my own. I had some tanks with and some without filters but kept using them less and less. They were still noisy and added more expense and extension cords. I just kept using the filters less and less until I dropped them all together. In the early 1990's I had about 25 tanks without filters. Most had low light levels and I grew a few very easy plants like hornwort, Vallisneria and Amazon swords.

There are several reasons why you can get away without filters in a planted tank. An important part of most filters is the surface area they create with flosses or beads or sponges, which houses the beneficial bacteria that clean your tank water. A tank full of plants also has a lot of surface area, the plants themselves. The plants are also beneficial, and between the plants, bacteria and reasonable water changes the tank remains comfortably suitable for the inhabitants.


I started out like most hobbyists, with the light strips that came with my tanks. So when I discovered the internet and the rest of the world of aquarium hobbyists about 15 years ago, most of my tanks had either the original single strip lights or filtered sunlight from a sheered window. The internet really opened up a whole new world for me, with a wealth of more information. That was the point when I started using more lights and increasing my water changes.

Right now I use mostly 4 foot lights. I like the specialty aquarium and grow lights. They probably are better for plant growth and if you just have a few tanks I would use them. For cost effectiveness I personally will usually use the regular cool white bulbs, though I do sometimes mix them with other bulbs.

Substrate and Fertilizers

I really just like to keep everything simple and use plain bags of small aquarium gravel. I've tried other things and never really noticed enough difference to change my ways. Gravel has small spaces that the fish waste can fill and become the fertilizer.

There is probably an advantage to starting with a small amount of specialty substrates before the fish waste gets a chance to accumulate, but I don't do it. I have good enough plant growth and would probably just suck it up when I vacuumed the gravel anyway. I have tried laterite a couple times and just didn't notice a difference in plant growth. I tried potting soil many years ago, and made a horrible stinky mess I don't want to ever repeat.


Is about making water like air. Even though life started in the water the plants (but not the algae) probably developed on land and then went back in to the water. Anyway the CO2 in the air is about 340 parts per million, while in water it's around 0-4 parts per million. Wow, big difference! No wonder plants in the aquarium like more CO2.

Fish didn't leave the water and can be killed with too much CO2, though they can tolerate more than what is usually in your aquarium and people that use CO2 often use devices to keep it under control. Things fail though and I've heard several accounts of someone coming home to a tank of dead and dying fish due to CO2 poisoning.

I'll admit you can get great plant growth with CO2. It can also be helpful in encouraging some plants to grow in your tank that might not otherwise, but it's another expense, another thing to do, and if something goes wrong can kill your fish. For me I've looked at the benefits and the detractions and decided not to use it.

Testing- Time is something I have way to little of in my life and standing around regularly dropping chemicals into little vials of water for 80 tanks just isn't going to happen. These tests can tell you important things, but once you have a system and things are going well, you shouldn't need to be doing much testing. Use your own senses. If everything looks good it probably is.

Water Changes

Yes I do them. I like water changes. I wish I had more time to do more of them. I think they're generally good for the fish and plants. I would say everything from a couple times a week to at least once a month. That's a pretty big difference. I have to admit to sometimes having gone longer between water changes but I would really try not to.

I use an aquarium vacuum when I do water changes. I use it to clean around the plants and suck down in between them in different areas each cleaning. You want some mulm build up but you don't want too much and you don't want the plants to get too root bound and this helps prevent both.

On Design

There are beautiful planted gardens. There are folks who spend hours designing how they want their aquariums to be before they plant them. Some go a lot farther studying art concepts and trying to incorporate them into their planted masterpiece.

I don't do that. I used to try to design my aquariums first; I even have some sketches I did of dream tanks 30 years ago, not anymore. I do sometimes have ideas of how I want some tanks to look, but most of them just kind of come together. I put taller plants in the back and sides and shorter ones in the front. Sometimes I add rock or wood (real or fake). I go with what feels right to me.

I love staring into natural lakes and rivers because they always seem to look pretty to me, but none of them are ever the picture perfect landscapes that I see in some beautiful aquariums. I can't even think of a natural body of water I've seen that didn't have some algae and many have a lot. The plant growth is a lot wilder and they often cover the top. There are usually quite a few invertebrates too, certainly many more than the home aquarium. This is another fun area of aquarium keeping.

Create Your Own Goals

There are many paths to success in the world of aquariums and many scales on which to judge that success. Each person has different goals in their planted tank hobby and should consider both their goals and their own unique personalities when deciding which methods to use in their own aquatic garden.

Questions or Comments?

If you have questions or Comments about this column, join the Natural Aquariums Forum and post them here.

Welcome to the Jungle | Into The Forest | The Creepy Crawlies | A Clearing in the Thicket | Algae Eaters for the Planted Aquarium
North American Natives | Why things go wrong Pt 1 | Why things go wrong Pt 2 (Algae) | Algae Eating Shrimp | Lo-Tech Tanks
Welcome to the Fish Room | The Stemmed Plants | Mosses | A Livebearer Biotope | Planted Tank Social | The Genus Hygrophila | Cyanobacteria
Easy Plants | What I Did Last Summer | Decorations in the Planted Tank | Botany-An Introduction to Plant Biology | Botany-Anatomy of a plant
Botany-How Plants Work | Easy Rosettes | Going High-Tech | Floating Plants | Dealing with Success | Bringing the Outside In | Vallisneria
Hair Algae | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 1 | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 2 | Liverworts in the Aquarium | Elements of Design
Planted Aquarium Maintenance | More Mosses | Invaders | Ferns in the Aquarium | Setting up a Planted Aquarium
Seaweeds of the Pacific Northwest | Proserpinaca | Hardware for the Planted Aquarium | Rotala | Neocaridina Shrimp | Lo-tech Tank Tips

Home | Forum | Articles | Plants | Inverts | Store

Vote for us daily on Aquarank

Search the Natural Aquariums web site

Discover new ways to explore your aquarium hobby every month with "Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine". The World's Aquarium Magazine since 1952.

For more information about planted aquariums, Natural Aquariums recommends "The Simple Guide to Planted Aquariums" by Terry Barber and Rhonda Wilson.

Natural Aquariums


Ask questions
Share your successes

"Nature Aquarium World 2" The second Nature Aquarium World book from Takashi Amano. Mr. Amano's aquariums and photography make him the most celebrated planted aquarist in the world today.

Christel Kasselmann's "Aquarium Plants" is the most complete encylopedia of aquarium plants to date. A must have book for the aquatic plant enthusiast.