Lo-tech Tank Tips

(Unedited version)
Originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of
Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

Lo-tech aquariums are vaguely aquariums with out too much equipment, if any. Most would allow an aquarium with lighting in to this group but after that the debate starts. People choose lo tech aquariums for a variety of reasons; economic, challenge, and personal preference are a few.

Why Low-Tech?

A lo- tech aquarium can be less expensive to set up. Particularly if you're considering going bare minimum with a small aquarium in a window. These can sometimes be challenging aquariums to keep unless you're very restrained and well researched.

Some aquarists that start on a high-tech planted tank may consider planting a lo-tech tank a challenge. It can be self satisfying to encourage a difficult plant to grow, or grow a very lush tank, without the use of extra fertilizers, high end lights, and CO2.

A simpler approach to fish keeping and plants just naturally appeals to some aquarists and they keep lo-tech aquariums because they simply prefer them.

In a high tech aquarium the idea is often to encourage maximum growth and sometimes to grow more difficult plants. In a lo-tech aquarium the plants grow more slowly. The lighting is not as intense and less additional fertilizers need to be added. Often water changes and the wastes of the animals in the tank are the only resources for plant nutrients. The stocking levels for fish and invertebrates is relatively light.

Be Prepared

moss growing in a mound on the bottom of an aquarium.

Mosses are very versatile plants and most species are easy to grow. This moss has formed mounds on the bottom of the aquarium.

If you're interested in keeping a lo-tech aquarium the first thing you can do for your success is to start right. Make sure you have researched the plants and animals you want to keep and that they will be comfortable and able to thrive in the type of environment you intend to set up for them. Books, this magazine, and the Internet can be all be good resources. Killies and livebearers are good fish for lo-tech aquariums as are many of the small fish you find in pet stores. There are also a lot of fish that would be horrible in these aquariums so be sure to know what you're getting before you bring it home.

When purchasing plants you will also need to know a little bit about what you're buying if you're going to have any chance at growing them successfully. Sadly many terrestrial plants are sold for use in the aquarium. Though some of these plants may take a few weeks to die, they will eventually die if left underwater, which makes them very inappropriate as an aquarium plant. Read books and know the names of and what the plants you want look like. You can also purchase plants from on line sources, from both commercial businesses and hobbyists. There are many of these resources listed in TFH monthly or checking a search engine on line should make finding someone to purchase plants from relatively easy.

When you purchase from a commercial plant resource on line, you will find that many of them are relatively small operations and the owners are usually very happy to answer your questions regarding plants they have for sale. You can find out before purchase if plants were grown emersed or if the plants have a reputation for easy or difficult growth without additional CO2.

Plant Selection

Some plants that are generally easy to grow for most people include the Vallisneria, many of the Echinodorus, Anubias, Java ferns, and mosses. Mosses can be particularly effective and useful in the aquarium. They can be used in many different types of aquariums, even bare bottom tanks, and with a lot of different types of fish, since even many that eat plants won't eat moss.

After you get the right plants be sure you plant your tank heavily. Sparsely planted aquariums will need to be treated more like those that have no plants. In regards to filtration, you will need an adequate one. If you are planing on the plants and the bacteria colonizing their surfaces to be your main source of filterization then you need to make sure you have lot's of strongly growing plants to handle the task.

Planted low-tech aquarium with mosses, crypts, pygmy chain sword and red foxtail.

Keeping plants trimmed will allow all the plant to get optimal light to achieve growth.

This brings us to the problem of what those plants will live off of. Once your aquarium is established the debris of the tank will gather in your gravel and help supply your plants with some of the nutrients they need. When you first set up a new tank this isn't the case. The beginning of your tank is usually the most difficult part of keeping an aquarium. There are several options you have. There are special made substrates specifically made for the planted aquarium. You could try a do it yourself method, which can work out well but can also be a little more adventuresome with the odds of less than desirable results a bit higher. Or you can just use plain gravel and fight it out with sometimes poor plant growth while you wait for the gravel bed to become more healthy for the plants. If you already have an aquarium set up, you can sometimes just add better lighting and plants. I've tried all 3 methods and kind of like the experimental ones right now but that's not for everyone.

Be sure to plant with some kind of idea in mind of how big the plants get and how you want your tank to look. Some people like to plan their tanks out very specifically before they get started and some folks prefer a more casual approach. Just don't get so casual that you forget to research your plants before you get them, including how big they will get and what part of the aquarium they're recommended for. Low plants for the front, medium sized ones for the middle, dramatic ones for accents and tall ones in the back. This will help ensure the plants will all get the light they need and you will still be able to see into your aquarium.

Animal Selection

When choosing the animals that will inhabit your tank you must take in to consideration the type of aquarium you have, in this case planted, but also the pH, hardness, and temperature, the needs of the animals, size of your tank, intended water changes and what the filtration system can handle. Generally small, peaceful, hardy, schooling fish are preferred. Most people like to have shrimp and snails in their planted aquariums to help control some types of algae. Make sure you don't over stock your tank, and keep in mind that many of these fish will breed successfully in a planted aquarium. With a heavy plant load several fry should survive to maturity. Fish like livebearers can over populate easily. Many shrimp and snails (often to our chagrin) will breed in the aquarium too. You will have to be responsible for regulating the population so it doesn't become greater than the system can effectively handle.

After you get your lo-tech aquarium set up, or you re-do an existing aquarium, you're tank will have some period of adjustment either becoming established or dealing with the changes you've made. This is the time where you are most likely to have problems with algae. It takes the plants some time to adjust to new conditions. Some nasty species of algae can quickly find your aquarium and decide it has it's perfect conditions to become established. They then proliferate quickly and become a problem. There are several fish, shrimp and snails that eat some types of algae, and these are helpful. But there are so many species that it's impossible to find something to eat them all and they are everywhere so it's very difficult to not get at least some algae growth. Generally a small amount isn't really a problem and can naturalize your tank a bit more. However algae often comes in large quantities that are a problem.

Aquarium with over growth of Valisneria blocking the view.

If you don't control the plant growth in your tank, some plants will soon take over. They can block light, keep nutrients from other plants and obscure the view of the aquarium.

Fighting Algae

To help prevent these outbreaks of algae you need to have healthy plant growth and a relatively clean environment. I say relatively clean because you don't want it sterile or your plants and fish won't survive either. Regular water changes can be very helpful, good for plant growth, and animal health. Sometimes if you haven't been doing water changes regularly they will initially seem to promote more algae growth. This is because your aquarium was missing nutrients that the algae can take advantage of faster than the plants. If you continue making those regular changes though, the plants will be able to adapt to the new conditions and become more healthy, making the tank more healthy, and less prone to algae in the long run. Be sure to clean some of the gravel and check for dead spaces, where mulm can build up, when cleaning your tank. Also manually remove as much algae as you can when you see it. It makes a big difference and is much easier than pulling huge sheets out later.

Make sure you don't give your aquarium too much light. I've found with some of my tanks that when a light bulb went out the plants all of a sudden started looking much better. Without added fertilizers you may not really need all those extra lights, and lower lighting can help deter algae and might actually work out better for your plants. Sometimes it helps to be willing to experiment to get the best mix for your own aquariums.

As your plants grow be sure to keep them trimmed and thinned. What one day can be luxurious growth can soon become a toxic mess because plants at the top blocked the light of those at the bottom, and they all died. Plants can very quickly take over the top of the tank and those below really will die quickly with no light. The massive deaths are too much for the system to deal with and the whole thing becomes a stinky mess of death quickly killing fish and other animals.

Most of these tips are relevant for many types of aquariums. Maintenance is important in any type of aquarium. Regardless of what type your interested in you will have to take care of it regularly, though with a lo-tech tank, you have a few less chores than with a high-tech one.

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

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