Hardware for the planted aquarium

(Unedited version)
Originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of
Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

The holiday season is just around the corner. A time when many new aquariums will go up in houses across the country. Whether you're thinking of getting something to give or a little gift for yourself, from a whole new system to a few new upgrades, you'll want to consider the different options available.

If you are buying aquarium equipment, plants or animals for someone else, make sure you know very specifically what they are looking for. There are so many options available that it's usually best to forgo the element of surprise in order to insure that the gift you give is really what the receiver can use. And while equipment is generally at least returnable, be extremely careful if you choose to give something alive as a present. Unless you know without a doubt that the recipient wants and can house aquatic plants or animals then it's a really bad idea to give them. Unless the recipient is in on the gift, gift certificates would most likely be more appropriate than live aquarium plants or animals.

Gift sets or individual items

Many aquariums are sold with the equipment to operate it. If you get one of these types of set-ups you should still be familiar with the what you need and be sure to check to insure everything is included. When choosing the type of set up you want to create be sure it will compliment your own habits and lifestyle. Any aquarium will require time for regular maintenance but a fast growing high tech aquarium will require a larger investment in time and money, to be successful, than a more simple set up.

Tanks and stands

When choosing an aquarium the main choices are the size and shape of the aquarium and the type of material that it's made of. The first choice may greatly influence the second.

In many ways when getting an aquarium larger is better. The smallest aquariums are unsuitable for almost all types of fish while larger ones allow you to keep both more fish and plants. Very small nano tanks are popular but I would only suggest that type of set up if you are already a seasoned hobbyist or have a great deal of self control. Mini aquariums need to be very carefully and strictly planned and maintained.

Aquariums are usually made of glass or acrylic. Many of the specialty shaped tanks, custom tanks, and extremely large aquariums are only available in acrylic, while most of the standard size home aquariums are still mostly offered in glass. Acrylic is much lighter, more durable, and doesn't have seams that can leak. It's biggest draw back is that it scratches relatively easily while glass doesn't scratch easily retaining more clarity over time.

Water is both heavy and a mess if it spills so having your aquarium on a good supportive structure is vital. For small aquariums you can often place them on sturdy furniture but be careful. Wood will get water stains and even an aquarium as small as a 10 gallon is better on a specially made stand. Many nicely made stands in a variety of styles are available at most aquarium stores.


The best lighting for most hobbyists planted tanks will be florescent. The standard lighted hood sold with most aquariums will usually be sufficient for only low light plants. Low light plants will need about 1.5 watts per gallon while some high light plants will require 3 or more watts per gallon. The simplest method is to purchase light fixtures made specifically for the planted aquarium. These will usually contain 2 or more tubes.

There are several types of light you can get for your aquarium. The most common available have standard fluorescent bulbs, the new slender T-5 high output bulbs, or compact fluorescent bulbs. All are appropriate for most planted aquariums. And which you choose depends on the size of the tank, amount of light you want to put in to it, and how much you have to spend.

VHO fluorescent lights are also available, these stand for very high output. These lights require special ballasts, are more expensive and don't last as long but they do give a lot more light in the same space as the standard fluorescents. Metal halide lights are another option for aquariums requiring very high lighting. These lights are also require special fixtures and are very hot. They need to be suspended well above the aquarium.

Incandescent lighting is not generally suitable for planted aquariums. But in recent years, with the proliferation of compact florescent lighting, the old incandescent aquarium hoods have become useful once more. Just replace the incandescent bulbs with compact florescent bulbs which are self ballasted and you can use these hoods for planted aquariums. I've been using these on several aquariums in the last couple years. It's nice to be able to make these old hoods useful once more.


CO2 systems available for purchase can be very simple and similar to the DIY yeast systems or more complex and expensive using CO2 cylinders. For most beginners and those on a limited budget it may be easier to start with one of the more simple fermentation based systems.

For those ready to take a more serious plunge or with a little more experience, pressurized CO2 might be more appropriate. You will need to find a local supplier for your CO2 tank and to keep it filled. You can usually get these at wielding supply companies. In addition to the tank you will need the equipment to safely get the gas from the CO2 tank in to your aquarium. You can purchase complete kits made specifically for the aquarium or you can shop for individual items.

If you intend to set up your own system you will need a duel gauge regulator, this lowers the pressure of the liquid CO2 in the tank so it can go back to gas form. For more control you'll also want a needle valve. Then you'll need silicon CO2 resistant tubing to put it all together and a reactor or diffuser, to mix the CO2 into the water. A new glass diffuser could make a nice little stocking stuffer for the planted tank enthusiast. A check valve will keep water from flowing back into your aquarium. Bubble counters measure how much CO2 your sending into your aquarium. For a more controlled system you can purchase a pH controller and solenoid valve to automatically adjust the CO2 being added to your aquarium.

Remember that your CO2 and lighting should be related. If you have more light you should add more CO2 and fertilizers, if you are adding more CO2 it's pointless unless you have the high lighting, regular water changes and are adding fertilizers.


Usually people will use filters of some sort for any type of aquarium to help keep the tank water cleaner. Though there is debate on their necessity in a planted tank, and I personally don't use them.

Many of the filters suitable for a fish aquarium will be also work fine for a planted aquarium but a few are generally avoided. Undergravel filters are not recommended in a planted aquarium, the plates will not work well with the fine substrate additives often used, and the roots will grow in to and clog up the space under the plates anyway blocking the water flow. Inside the tank filters are often avoided too, as they take up space, particularly those that take up floor space like box or sponge filters, and detract from the beauty of the tank. Many of these are also air driven filters and many planted tank aficionados believe that the increased surface activity and aeration will drive off CO2.

This leaves external filters which include hang on the back filters, which should be used with a low flow back rate, canister filters, and for the more adventurous do-it-yourself type filters, like wet/dry and baffle filters. These larger DIY systems are often set up in smaller aquariums. They can be more difficult to set up but proponents love to be able to keep heaters, and all the unsightly equipment in the large filter, and water changes can also be done from the filter.


For the most part I've found plants to be more forgiving of the temperature of an aquarium than the fish. So choosing heating your for your planted aquarium is generally the same as that for a fish only tank. You have the same options, keeping cooler water fish and plants, keeping the room your aquarium is in consistently warm enough to keep your aquarium at the appropriate temperature (which is usually not the best option unless you live in a very warm place or have many aquariums, both of which are the case in my home) or getting an aquarium heater. There are a couple basic options for whole tank heating, you can get a heater that goes in the tank, or one that goes in to or connects in line to your filter. Either option should work fine just be sure you choose one that's suitable for the size of your tank. There are also new heating and cooling units available for the aquarium. Though these are mostly used with reef aquariums, they could be useful in some situations with a planted aquarium.

Another option that can be added with a planted aquarium is a substrate heater. These are designed to heat just the substrate and not serve as the heating system for the entire aquarium. The heaters go in to the tank before the substrate which is then placed on top of the heating unit. Substrate heating was more recommended among hard core aquarium plant enthusiasts in the past, but has become less popular in recent years.

More Goodies

Aquarium test kits, fertilizers and even fish food might be other possible aquarium gifts. Gift certificates are also very useful. Books and magazine subscriptions, like one for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, are some of my favorite gifts too. There are so many fun goodies available for the planted aquarium hobbyist on your list the hardest part may be choosing from them all.

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

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